The Leader as Spiritual Guide: Five Key Thoughts
Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith (Hebrews 13:7 ESV).
The word “leader” in the original Greek of the New Testament holds the meaning of “to go before,” “to guide,” “to direct,” and implies to influence someone towards a particular course, to take a specific action. This is why I always define leadership as being influence. A leader is not about “being in charge,” but rather, it is about being ahead on the path. As I often say to people, “well, you're the leader because you’re a half-step ahead of everyone else!” Someone doesn't have to “have it all figured out” to be a leader. Instead, they must be willing to take the responsibility to guide others spiritually along the Jesus way is based on what they already know and have appropriated in Christ. In our Western society, we often think of leaders as being the uniquely qualified specialist, the ones with the “credentials.” Most often, it is these experts which we rely upon to provide leadership. In the Kingdom, everybody has the potential to lead others in Christ. Indeed, we must know Him and understand His Kingdom way, having experience living it out in our own lives. Granted, some people are called explicitly to leadership roles within the Kingdom community. Still, the spiritual guidance of others is not solely limited to their purview.
So, what does it look like to lead others in Christ, providing spiritual guidance? Here are five things which I think are essential. My list is not exhaustive, but I think these things are key:
First, there must a willingness to lead others in the Jesus way. Hesitant leaders make unfaithful guides. If someone, for whatever reason, cannot embrace the leadership task, they will not be consistent in it. Someone must be willing to take on the spiritual responsibility to provide biblically-rooted guidance to others in their walk with Jesus. Any reluctance to engage with others in a discipleship relationship will have a limited impact upon others. Fear, self-doubt, and an unwillingness to sacrifice/invest time in others are just a few reasons some may not engage. If you are going to lead, you must be willing to pay the price for focus:
For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?
2 Timothy 2:1-6
You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also. Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops. Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.
Second, the leader must have both a theological and practical understanding of Jesus' way. I write about this extensively in The Way of The Master, where I discuss Jesus’ yoke. The “yoke” was the rabbi’s interpretation of the Torah, which included life application. The leader must be growing in their knowledge and application of the Scriptures. Understanding how the Word applies to real-life situations and issues is essential in providing spiritual guidance to others. People need and want to know what the Bible says about relationships, marriage, parenting, etc., which are all part of the Kingdom life. The personal experience of living the Jesus way is the experiential framework in which the leader learns what they share. They resource others out of what they have learned about living life in the Kingdom of God:
2 Timothy 3:16-17
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
2 Corinthians 1:3-6
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer.
Third, there must be a willingness for someone to be led in the way of Jesus.
A lot of people were struck by what Jesus had to say and wanted to follow Him. However, some of them seemed to have conditions that they placed upon their followership. Some wanted to spend time with family, others wanted to gain their inheritance, and others simply reject Jesus outright. For someone to be led, they must want to be. They must know their own need for leadership. They must come to the realization that they don’t know the way. When they come to this awareness, they know their need, they can receive the Kingdom way of life:
Now when Jesus saw a crowd around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. And a scribe came up and said to him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Another of the disciples said to him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.”
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Fourth, both the leader and the disciple must understand the “why” of the relationship. What is the purpose of the particular relationship? The disciples followed Jesus because they understood that Jesus would make them a rabbi like He was. He would lead them in the His path, and they would then take and “spread His yoke” – His way of life – to other disciples. They knew and were motivated by the “why.” There was the intention, there was a purpose, and there was a goal. People seek spiritual guidance for a reason. To effectively lead them, we must connect with the drive and ambition to help provide motivation for the journey. God indeed has a vision for their life, a plan to give them a future and a hope. This must be part of the vision-cast that helps them to engage in following:
While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.
Fifth, there must be a common relational framework for the leader to walk together with those who have accepted their leadership. To provide spiritual guidance, simple instructions, directives, and statements of biblical imperative are not enough. There must be a conversation, a format for discussion, and the possibility for an ongoing dialog. A person must have an opportunity to process and discern what the Holy Spirit is saying to them about following Jesus. Creating a relational space is a fundamental component to effectively provide spiritual leadership to others. Jesus called his disciples to a relationship with Him, and through that helped them to find the Kingdom of God:
The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. Jesus turned and saw them following and said to them, “What are you seeking?” And they said to him, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and you will see.” So they came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour.
“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”
So, dear leader, the Lord intends you to serve as a guide to others in His way. You are not in command, you are not in control. You guide others, yourself being led by the Holy Spirit. In partnership with Him, you can help others find the way of Jesus and walk in it.
And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way, walk in it,” when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left. (Isaiah 30:21)