Partnering with God
Personal transformation is always critical for leaders
Six years ago we moved from the inner city to a three-acre plot with multiple fruit trees. I never realized how much work these trees require, naively assuming they produced their bountiful harvests year after year, sans intervention. I had much to learn. Fruit trees must be trimmed twice a year as well as repaired after any storm damage. They need to be sprayed multiple times per season to combat the unrelenting pests (or utilize more time-consuming organic methods). Cherry trees need to be draped with netting, or the birds will enjoy an ongoing feast. During times of drought, every tree must be watered. I have found it exhausting, time consuming, and in some seasons, hardly worth the effort.
While we might not see the obvious connection, leadership requires a similar intentionality. Regardless of our experience, if we hope to produce good fruit for the long haul, we must prioritize our own leadership growth and personal transformation above leading others in the same. Failure to do so may result in both a withered soul and contaminated produce.
Leadership growth and personal transformation are deeply interconnected but not necessarily synonymous. From the vantage point of one who’s led for more than 25 years, the former refers to acquiring the skills, information, and knowledge necessary to succeed in the task at hand. Many organizations tend to focus on leadership growth, almost to the exclusion of personal transformation. I hope to convey that our success as leaders depends upon both components.
Transformation is at the core of our faith. Paul wrote, “Let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy” (Ephesians 4:23-24). God intends for us to yield to and partner with him so that the whole of who we are gradually reflects Jesus to the world. This is a profound and lifelong process, accomplished in secret but consequential to those we lead—as well as those with whom we share our lives.
At the front end of a leadership career, our inexperience and insecurity motivate us to grow our skill sets. We routinely face complex and challenging ministry situations which force us to seek counsel from more experienced partners. I remember sitting down with a couple whose marriage had disintegrated into an unrecognizable mess and thinking to myself, “I have no idea how to help these people.” The next day, I compiled a list of questions and phoned a woman who had been counseling couples for decades. In our next session, I felt much more prepared.
After years of leading, confidence gradually eclipses insecurity. Rather than ask others for help, we receive opportunities to preach or lead retreats. Most of our rough edges have been smoothed over and we can legitimately enjoy the fruits of our labor. We are now at a seminal juncture in our leadership; will we continue to pursue growth and transformation or will we erroneously assume that we’ve been there, done that? In my tenure as a leader, I have repeatedly witnessed vibrant ministries and churches dwindle and even close their doors simply because those at the helm failed to understand the synergistic relationship between our ongoing personal movement and functional success.
Detecting Spiritual Hardening of the Arteries
Because we live in a culture which values success above maturity, we can easily overlook warning signals meant to communicate that our priorities are amiss. In his last two years in the pastorate, one gifted leader repeatedly spun the same ministry stories, all of which took place more than 20 years ago. To those who sat under him, it became increasingly clear that he was stuck. It came as no great surprise when he announced that he was leaving the church and moving on to other ventures.
Asking the following questions might help to determine if you have focused on leading to the exclusion of being transformed. Are the stories and personal examples you share current? Do they reflect areas where God continues to shape you, not a decade ago but within the past year? Do you seek out and carefully weigh critique and criticism? Do you allow those with divergent opinions or perspective to stretch and challenge your approach and content? Do you have mentors who are at least 10 years older?
If you answered “no” to most of the questions, you might want to come to a full stop and explore why. (Some of these symptoms might point to fatigue or the need for a sabbatical.) Few of us rationally decide to resist growth and transformation. More often than not, a complex set of circumstances conspires to derail us. Most of us have limited time and energy. When forced to choose between spending an hour preparing to teach or sitting with a sometimes-confrontational spiritual director, we generally default to the former. If we make that choice once, it’s not terribly consequential, but made over years, it will be. Additionally, most churches and organizations offer a finite discipleship track. After we have gone through all their offerings, we are essentially on our own.
Taking Responsibility for our Growth
Regardless of the many demands upon our time and the limitations of the organizations we serve, we must accept responsibility for our continued maturation by taking the initiative to determine what we need. Options might include regular silent retreats, enrollment in an intensive healing program, meeting with a spiritual director, or simply disciplining yourself to regularly pick up a book on a topic that touches your need—rather than your ministry’s need.
One of the easiest methods of assessing any areas of weakness is to routinely ask others for honest feedback. I typically do this once a year via a written form. My teammates are allowed to write their names on it or keep it anonymous. I am less interested in having them affirm me and more curious to hear them answer the question “How can I improve as your leader?”
This need for continued leadership growth and personal transformation should be perceived not as a sign of weakness, but as a mark of maturity and obedience to Christ. Jesus said to his disciples, “Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing…When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father” (John 15:5-8). Our ultimate “success” as leaders is reflected not by worldly metrics but by an ever-deepening relationship with Christ, which transforms us into his image.
Dorothy Littell Greco spends her days writing, making photographs, pastoring, and trying to keep her three teenage sons adequately fed. She and her family live surrounded by apple orchards, just outside of Boston, MA. You can find more of her words and images at www.dorothygreco.com.