ANATOMY OF A SPIRITUAL LEADER
A CONVERSATION WITH GORDON MACDONALD
When he was an infant, Gordon MacDonald survived two close brushes with death – a near-drowning and being close to a fatal plane crash. His mother viewed these as providential sparings of his life. From his earliest days, she often told him, “God is raising you for something special.”
His reaction? “Throughout childhood and even my somewhat rebellious adolescence, I had an awareness that God had this stake in my life and was going to claim it one of these days. It made me very aware that my life is not my own. Every decision I made had some sort of spiritual implication. God wasn’t going to let me run free.”
God didn’t, and Gordon eventually entered seminary, accepted his first pastorate in tiny St. Francis, Kansas, and now, some twenty years later, serves Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts. He is also chairman of the board of World Vision. LEADERSHIP interviewed him about what distinguishes spiritual leaders.
Looking back, all the indicators seemed to point you toward spiritual leadership. Did it come naturally? Or has it been a struggle?
There was a day when I would have been jealous for leadership; today I find it sobering. I have passed the point of aspiring to leadership. It is a privilege to be a leader, but the price is great.
Anyone with a leadership responsibility has to watch every word he or she says, and you learn you can’t go through life without a few critics, some well deserved. Occasionally you have a rough time knowing who’s a genuine friend, and there are serious time limitations on pursuing healthy friendships. There’s pressure on your spotlighted children and marriage, and at times most leaders, I suspect, ask, “Who needs all this?”
On the other hand, everything I’ve been privileged to be part of has been the result of a choice to respond to God’s call. So I’m not whining about the pressure.
It comes back to God’s anointing. Gail and I are constantly aware that God has called us to do something. Every morning we take time to ask God, “What is the purpose of this in our lives?”
I no longer entertain the notion that whatever I’m supposed to do has to be great. I don’t feel the need to pastor the largest church in the world. I don’t aspire to a television ministry or national radio ministry. I don’t need to have my name in every magazine. But I do feel strongly a sense of call and obligation.
Besides the Lord’s anointing, what other traits must the Christian leader possess?
The ability to communicate vision. The leader is the custodian of the vision of a movement. Some of us communicate the vision through our gift of speaking, but others have done it differently. D. E. Hoste, for example, Hudson Taylor’s successor at China Inland Mission, was an administrator, and his leadership was accomplished in the office and at the committee table. His wisdom and ability to persuade convinced people that he was filled with the Holy Spirit and worthy to be followed.
If pastors, however, are going to be effective leaders, they will have to master the business of preaching or abdicate a great deal of what pastoral leadership is all about.
What’s another element?
Sensitivity to people. That means, first, a leader must hear what people are saying. This is true even in preaching. Peter Drucker says communication doesn’t happen with the speaker but with the hearers. As a speaker I’ve got to understand the way you think. How do you perceive information? Churchill knew the English people, so he was sensitive to the right word forms that would capture their attention – he knew what would inspire them and make them mad enough at the enemy to keep persevering despite. incredible hardship.
Being sensitive also means the ability to look at situations and decode what’s going on. I think God has given me a gift in that area. It’s instinctive for me to walk into a room and quickly sense who is in charge, or for that matter, to quickly realize that no one is in charge. That’s an important skill in church situations.
That means sensitive leaders need to know themselves.
Definitely. If we don’t know ourselves and what shaped us, what neutralizes us, and what our limits are, we invite disaster. Let me give an example. Many men and women in leadership positions are insecure persons. Some struggle with large unresolved areas from the past. Many of today’s evangelical leaders came out of poverty-ridden backgrounds from the Depression, which can affect one’s relational style or one’s temptation to ambition. One of the most poignant descriptions of this sort of thing comes from the pen of Charles Blair (The Matt Who Could Do No Wrong, Chosen Books).
Unless the past can be resolved, it often becomes an Achilles’ heel in leadership. People run from one thing to another. I came into the ministry as an insecure person, specifically needing affirmation. I needed for people to like me, and I equated applause with affirmation. I’ve had to work on that, to transfer from being a driven person to being a called person.
How does a person resolve that?
It’s a lifelong process. The resolution begins through daily self-examination against God’s righteousness and the discovery of sinful motives. Second, it’s going back in your past to ask, What has formed me? What am I looking for in life? What didn’t I get that I needed?
Two resources are invaluable to help with this: a good spouse and a good mentor. I’m thankful I’ve always had a good mentor. And I’ve had Gail for over twenty years.
What does a mentor do?
A mentor provides affirmation, so you don’t have to look for it in artificial ways. Second, a mentor provides correction. In seminary I sat under the teaching of Ray Buker. For another course, I was to present a position paper in a Christian education debate, so I cut two classes I had with Dr. Buker that day to work on it. That night after I read the paper and everyone had left,’ Buker came up and said, “Gordon, that was a good paper you read. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a great one. Would you like to know why it wasn’t a great one?”
I said, “I’m not sure, but .”it was not great because you sacrificed the routine to write it.”
That was one of those open-window moments where you recognize a real principle in life. Sacrificing the routine is not what makes effective people. Buker was trying to point out that most of us go through life for the peaks, rather than realizing that life is often lived in the valleys and on the hillsides. I never forgot that lesson.
Not everyone seems capable of learning those lessons.
I know men my age who had access to the same mentors I did but resisted their help. When I was an athlete, I lost a very important race because I didn’t listen to my coach. Afterward he said to me, “You have all the promise of being a man who’s going to go through life learning things the hard way.”
I walked off the field that day saying, That’s the last lesson I’m going to learn the hard way. Fin going to learn by other people’s hard ways. That principle also stuck with me. I began to watch others’ failures and humiliation and ask myself, Where would I be apt to make that error?
As the years went by, the mentoring turned toward attitudes. One of my mentors (more a friend but also a mentor) was the late Philip Armstrong, then president of Far Eastern Gospel Crusade. Once in Manila I made a flip statement about somebody, and Phil said gently, “Gordon, a man of God would not say a thing like that.” I could have bristled, but it was a loving confrontation, and he was dead right.
Many leaders operate at a level where they can go for a long time without anybody calling them to account, and the result is they get so busy helping other people that their perceptions drift. Then the mentor comes along, asks the hard question, makes the stiff confrontation, and you say to yourself, How could I have been so stupid not to have seen this?
The other resource you mentioned your wife, Gail. What have you gained from her?
She has been an incalculable factor in helping me know myself. She’s not afraid to show me my negative side, confront me, and ask me to think things through a little bit better than I’m doing. We do that for each other, and together we have worked through both our pasts. We both had a lot to resolve.
We isolate both the positive and that which we must discard. I could use my background and say, This is why I am, so take me the way I am. But I can’t afford that kind of self-pity. We work hard on it, but it’s a lifelong process. I could go back to being a driven man pretty quickly if I didn’t maintain a spiritual center.
What do you mean by your “spiritual center”?
I’m convinced from my reading of the mystics that our perception of reality revolves around a spiritual center. That center quickly becomes almost inoperative if it’s not maintained through constant spiritual discipline. Almost all Christian leaders believe that doctrinally, but few believe it experientially enough to carve out one or two hours a day to maintain the spiritual center.
What results is an accumulation of knowledge without wisdom. You get leaders who operate on charisma instead of spiritual power. And it takes spiritual power to make the clear break with the world’s values as a spiritual leader must. I don’t mean to sound pious, but as I get older I realize this truth more and more. We can’t maintain the pace unless we pray, study Scripture, and read heavy doses of the classical spiritual literature.
Have you had leadership models?
Yes, Charles Simeon was one. He pastored a church in Cambridge, England for fifty-three years (1783-1836) and seemed to do all the right things: caring for the people, working hard at his sermons, developing others, having a world view for the gospel, and staying free of restricting theological systems. He borrowed liberally from both Arminian and Calvinist theology. Although he rarely mentioned politics in his sermons or writings, he nurtured people who went out and changed the world. There were many things about him I could never like, but I’ve learned a great deal from reading about him.
Can you really learn from a written account, especially when only the good things are usually recorded?
I think you can. In Simeon’s case his writings reveal a spiritually broken man who knew his own sins. For one thing, he had an impulsive mouth. His journals are full of phrases like, “Talk not about thyself,” and “Three things I must have: humility, humility, humility.”
Sometimes a pastor has a spouse to help teach verbal prudence, but Simeon was a lifelong single man. He was often very lonely. Still, he has been my pastoral model for the last two or three years.
Gail and I have also been deeply impressed by several missionary leaders. Besides D. E. Hoste, we have been touched by the leadership style of Fred Mitchell (also of the China Inland Mission), who was the English home director in the 1940s.
Gail just finished a two-volume biography of William Booth that deeply affected us both. She read me many excerpts about the mind-boggling work of Booth and his wife, Catherine.
Another is Samuel Logan Brengle, also a leader in the Salvation Army in the early 1900s. Brengle traveled the world, and whenever he walked into the offices of Salvation Army leaders, they stopped their work, dismissed their secretaries, and gave him their total attention. They knew that to be with Brengle was a cleansing experience; they knew he’d take the time to pray for them. We rarely have experiences, like that today with pastors or leaders.
Not long ago I was in London and found myself in some low moments. One man, sensing my mood, said, “Gordon, are there any knots in your life?” I found myself able to suddenly o I pen up to a prayer partner, a pastor I badly needed.
It’s been said that a leader is someone well acquainted with human passions but liable to none of them. How far removed does the leader have to be in order to function well?
I don’t have the intelligence to answer that question adequately. My experience has been that those you lead play a game with you – they want you to be one of them, yet they don’t.
Being with you may escalate their self-image. So it becomes a game to see who can spend the most time with the pastor or the pastor’s wife. It’s prestigious to have the pastor attend your party instead of someone else’s.
At the same time, they also want you to be above them, because that releases them from responsibility. If they get you on a pedestal, then they don’t have to maintain your standards. In fact, some people like to put their leaders up high enough so they can shoot them down.
One of the pressures of leadership is having to face the fact that you cannot be friendly with everybody. That’s painful. But you can’t afford to confuse leadership with friendship. Sometimes when a leader works with people, they think the leader wants to be their best friend, and they’re hurt when the leader turns away from them to go on to someone else for another purpose or project. Gail and I made some terrible mistakes along this line in the early stages of our ministry when we didn’t differentiate between discipling or leading people and, on the other hand, simply cultivating their friendship.
That’s a tough distinction to make.
I don’t want to be misunderstood, but perhaps we can observe that the Lord himself wasn’t a friend of everyone with whom he worked. You get the feeling he deliberately withdrew on occasions when person who was just a friend might have stayed. He. trained a few people to establish the church. But he didn’t seem to try to be friends with them all. Leadership demands a kind of relationship different than simply intimate friendship.
How can you tell if you’re letting a discipling relationship drift into an intimate friendship?
Ask yourself how your time together is being spent. I can think of relationships where one day I woke up and realized I was not being a spiritual person with this individual. It would have been almost odd for the two of us to switch into a spiritual conversation.
When we pastored in Illinois, we accepted almost every invitation that came along. We were desperate to be well liked, and pretty soon we were -and we were having a corking good time besides. But as the months rolled by, we began to ask ourselves if that was why we had come. Did we come to this church just to be good guys, or did we come to be a physician for souls?
Another way to test yourself is to evaluate who you are spending your time with. I’ve devised a little scheme that’s very helpful to me. A pastor has four kinds of people:
– VIPs. The very important people are those you are developing for leadership roles. You share with them your vision for ministry. They’re your spiritual heavyweights that are really coming along.
– VTPs. The very teachable people are the younger believers who are open to learning and will be tomorrow’s leaders.
– VNPs. The very nice people are wonderful to be around, but they make no difference whatsoever as far as the spiritual life of the church is concerned. The church is full of VNPs.
– VDPs. The very draining people are the ones who create a negative balance in the arrangement. You’re always giving to them, whether it’s advice or encouragement or problem solving. You get absolutely no return from them.
The VIPs are doing the work now, the VTPs will do the work tomorrow, the VNPs are likely to avoid work whenever possible, and the VDPs often are the work itself.
Most pastors spend their time with groups three and four. We minimize our time with the very important people because they can take care of themselves. We don’t give enough time to the very teachable people because the draining people are making such extreme demands on our time.
Jesus, however, spent most of his time with the first two groups, and he got them to help with the work of dealing with the other two groups. At the same time, they were being built up as leaders to carry on the work of the church.
I suggest to young pastors that they take out their datebook for the last month and candidly put one of those four sets of initials behind the name of everyone they met with. You quickly find out where your priorities lie.
We do this at Grace Chapel by breaking down our time with people into three categories: program contacts, problem contacts, and pastoral contacts. The first two are self-explanatory. Pastoral contacts are where you simply go to see people for care and maintenance of the soul. They don’t have a problem and you’re not working with them on a program -you just want to encourage them, spur them on to growth, tell them you love them, or just find out who they are.
We discovered that almost all our pastors were spending most of their time with program and problem contacts. So we set up ratios one year and asked them to include the percentages in their staff reports. We really grew because of being forced to make more pastoral calls.
So you’re saying that prioritizing your work is also an important part of being an effective Christian leader.
Yes, and let me underscore – the minute you start setting priorities, you’re going to gather some critics. Our Lord did. The classic illustration is the end of Luke 18 and beginning of 19, where Jesus’ friends and enemies complained when he stopped to touch the blind man, and they really muttered when he went to the home of Zacchaeus. The problem in both cases was he had a different set of priorities than his followers did.
Is part of this prioritizing defining your objective?
Yes. To that extent it’s very managerial. We have key, critical, and specific objectives at Grace Chapel. Our stated key objective is that “Grace Chapel is a Christian congregation committed to the discovery and enjoyment of the self revealed God and to the creation of an environment in which people can grow to Christian maturity.” ,- Under that are four critical objectives: worship, fellowship, Christian education, and commission. Specific objectives are what we want to do in each of those areas this year.
We recommit ourselves to the key objective and the critical objectives at a pastoral staff retreat every fall, and at that time we also develop our specific objectives. We also have an annual evaluation and appraisal every May to see how we’re doing in each area. We have briefer quarterly meetings, too, and of course weekly staff meetings to keep us on track.
Every staff member makes a weekly written report to our executive minister and me. We give enormous amounts of latitude for personal innovation underneath the mission statement, but – and this is important – maximum autonomy requires maximum reporting.
You’ve mentioned six qualities special anointing, ability to communicate the vision, sensitivity to people, self-knowledge, a strong spiritual center, and ability to prioritize. Would you say those are the essentials for spiritual leadership?
We left out one that I hear a lot of complaints about-the ability to confront. Thousands of the Lord’s dollars are being used to carry people we can’t work with in Christian organizations. We’re afraid to deal with them because we don’t want anyone to get hurt. You can see it happen every Sunday. Three hundred people come to church fifty-two Sundays a year and sit and suffer through substandard organ playing. The people suffer, the pastor suffers, the soloist suffers, and the music program is 15 percent of what it should be, all because no one has the nerve to fire that organist.
As a leader of a pastoral staff for some years, I have had to face the painful decision to ask a few people to leave. It is hard to remember worse moments in my life than those. And frankly, I’m not sure I handled any of the situations in the best possible way. After all, it’s not the sort of thing you do every day. But in part I was motivated by the words of a fine Christian layman who told me that sometimes to fire a person can be the greatest of Christian acts, because if you as the leader are not happy with his or her work, chances are the person isn’t happy either. I’m not sure the few people I’ve had to dismiss over the years remember me with a lot of affection, but I do find personal satisfaction in that in each case they went on to more suitable tasks and seem to be better adjusted people today. They will never credit me with their present happiness, and that’s all right, but I remind myself of how unhappy they would be and how unhappy I would be if they were still with US.
We have had some tearful sessions with people who have been dismissed. I am not by nature a tough person, and those moments took a lot out of me. But leadership cannot happen without them.
Of the leadership characteristics you’ve mentioned, rank them in order of need as you perceive it in yourself and the pastors you know.
The number one struggle of Christian leaders is a lack of personal internal organization -that is, a sense of the spiritual center. Frankly, I don’t think many of us who have the privilege of Christian leadership have our spiritual-discipline or intellectual-growth acts together. And it’s not because we don’t have the desire. We’re just not adequately organized to make it happen.
It’s not unusual that when I go someplace to lecture and, during the course of the talk, quote half a dozen authors, someone will come up afterward and say, “Where do you get the time to read? It must be because you’ve got this big staff and they’re releasing you for all this reading time.” Yes, a little, but mostly no. Having a staff doesn’t automatically guarantee discretionary time. I have to work hard for it, as the pastor of any small church does. It’s a matter of what I call internal organization.
That’s where pastors are losing the battle most frequently. When you’re not organized internally, it affects your preaching, relational capacities with your congregation, and your ability to interact with your past and resolve it.
After internal organization, all the other skills we mentioned are pretty much equal in importance.
What if you realize you don’t have your act together and you’re paralyzed you can’t get yourself off square one. How do you deal with that?
I have a mental metaphor that fits what you’re talking about: shifting from fifth gear to first gear. I imagine myself suddenly expending all my horsepower on a few central things that I deal with very slowly. I’ll say to myself, For the next week I’ve got to go into first gear.
When I feel paralyzed, I take a day off as soon as possible and re-evaluate my whole time budget. I go back to basics and make sure I’m allowing the right amount of time for the things we’ve been discussing. Because they are so central to effective Christian leadership, we sometimes don’t consciously budget time for them. We assume they will happen, and sometimes they get away from us.
There are three things in my life that I need most, but they never scream for immediate attention: God, family, and my mind. If I miss my devotions one day, God doesn’t zap me. Gail and my kids are very understanding. If I say to them, “I’m awfully busy this week,” they’re liable to say, “That’s OK, we understand.” And since I’m pretty good with words, I can miss my study time this week and still deliver a credible sermon on Sunday -for three or four Sundays, probably.
So what happens? I start paying too much attention to things that scream, the people who want to see me, the staff, the board meetings, the speaking trips. And I ignore the things that don’t scream but are actually the most important. Young pastors have the most problems with this because the things that scream are the public, “doing” things that seem so important until you sit down and actually prioritize them on a list. I think this is so important that I just -finished writing a book on the subject called Ordering Your Private World (Moody Press, 1984).
How long will the young pastoral leader survive in the ministry without this internal ordering?
Maybe five to ten years. Young leaders usually have natural talent, charisma, and huge chunks of energy. So they get by on that. I was about thirty-three when I realized I was moving ahead in ministry mostly on charisma and energy, and those were bound to give out. Meanwhile, the guys who maybe didn’t have as much charisma and talent but had learned to make it on sheer determination were slowly creeping up in their effectiveness, and by my figuring, they would leave me in the dust at about age forty.
Natural talent can be both a blessing and a curse. It can get us through those early rough years when experience is wanting, but it can lull us into cheating on the development of a spiritual center. That realization was the occasion for me getting my spiritual house in order and I some of the other things we talked about today. It was a very important discovery in my life.
THE ABOVE MATERIAL WAS PUBLISHED BY LEADERSHIP MAGAZINE, FALL 1984, PAGES 106-114. THIS MATERIAL IS COPYRIGHTED AND MAY BE USED FOR STUDY & RESEARCH PURPOSES ONLY.