Spiritual Leadership

I’ve recently become the “Lead” pastor of the First United Methodist Church of Orlando.  My colleague, Rev. Emily Sterling has also arrived to be the “Executive” pastor.  These are different than the traditional “Senior” and “Associate” pastoral titles and roles.

These new titles are more than semantics.  They’re intended to communicate different kinds of pastoral roles, responsibilities, and authority, with clarity.  While I’m still the “senior” of the two pastors – by age, grey hairs and battle scars, if nothing else – by serving with an “Executive” pastor, I am freer to “lead” in other, more specific ways.  In our case, the “Executive” pastor will oversee the administration of church finances, facilities, and the strategic planning and implementation of church-wide programming.

So, what does that leave for me to “lead?”  Good question.

Pastors often complain that seminary didn’t prepare them for the realities of ministry.  Usually, they’re bemoaning the little-to-no training in church administration – finances, facilities, personnel management, fundraising, conflict management, vision implementation, marketing, etc.  When I became a pastor, I didn’t know I’d need to learn about building maintenance, sound equipment, city codes and permitting, membership software, spreadsheets, mass mailings, basic carpentry, Roberts Rules of Order, tax laws, etc., etc.

In seminary, I imagined a career of preaching and teaching, officiating weddings and funerals, administering the sacraments, counseling the hurting, shepherding the searching, feeding the hungry – all undergirded by a life of prayer and study.  Thankfully, seminary provided an excellent foundation for these aspects of ministry, for which I’m most grateful.  The rest, I’ve learned – to greater and lesser degrees – “on the job.”

The truth is, depending on the particular church/ministry, all of it’s necessary.  Good preaching is necessary.  Good financial policies and practices are necessary.  Comforting the grieving is necessary.  Negotiating the contract on the copy machine is necessary.  Prayer is necessary.  Responding to emails and texts are necessary.  It’s all necessary.

As the leader, the pastor often makes decisions that have very little to do with spirituality and everything to do with keeping the building standing, the employees paid, and the church calendar planned and communicated.  But, without the administrative functions, the more “spiritual” dimensions of the work couldn’t happen.  That’s just reality.

The problem I see in too many churches, is the pastor is the “boss” or “Chief Executive Officer,” and is mostly consumed in the administrative functioning of the institution, to the detriment of the spiritual work to which they were originally drawn.  Besides lack of training, education, or gifting for administration –  which often leads to ineffective administrative leadership and poor decision-making – pastors consumed in “running the church” often fail to provide the spiritual leadership their congregations are so desperately hungry for, and so desperately need.

Please don’t hear this assessment as a criticism of pastors.  As a pastor, I have a deep appreciation for pastors.  If anything, I’m attempting to name a weakness in many church structures.  The demands to keep the “ship afloat” can be all consuming, leaving little time for spiritual shepherding or the pastor’s own spiritual growth and health.

Last year, I spoke at a preaching conference for Nazarene pastors.  My talks focused on two guiding principles for my own preaching: (1) Always preach with the intent to change lives, (2) Always preach from the “overflow” of my relationship with Jesus, and my personal spiritual pursuits.  Unfortunately, too much preaching, in my opinion, is filling twenty-or-so minutes with stories, information, quotes, and jokes, frantically gathered from week-to-week, with little-to-no clarity of intent.  As the dean of my doctoral program once said, “Vance, never preach a sermon with intending to change someone’s life!”  That statement has stuck with me, every time I’ve climbed into the pulpit.  “Preaching from the overflow,” means a depth and richness of spiritual vitality, resulting from the pastor’s own spiritual seeking.

While I’d hoped these messages might provide the same inspiration and motivation they have for me, I had the opposite effect.  After my talks, I discovered pastor after pastor, deeply discouraged, because their ministries weren’t bearing much obvious fruit, and their pastoral duties were consumed in the “business” of the church.  Instead of preaching to change lives, from a place of overflow, they were lucky to find time to plan a half-baked sermon, much less adequate time to care for their own souls.  I fear I only added to their sense of pastoral frustration, and, to some degree, shame.

So back to the question, what will I do as the “Lead” pastor at the First United Methodist Church of Orlando?

While I’ll certainly be involved, at the “macro” level, of church finances, fundraising, facilities, planning, etc., my primary job is the “spiritual” leadership of my congregation.  While my colleague, Emily, is also uber-capable to lead spiritually, she has administrative gifts I don’t possess.  No doubt, she’ll be the primary spiritual leader for many.  But, her administrative oversight of the church’s functioning will free me to be the congregation’s primary spiritual shepherd.

That means more of my time and attention can be focused on worship, preaching, and teaching, and the prayerful planning and preparation required.  Let’s be honest: preaching and teaching that inspires, convicts, moves people to action requires a lot of time and effort, not to mention depth of soul.  And, a pastor’s soul can become as dry, withered, and dusty as anyone else’s if neglected – which it too often is!

But, a great sermon, preached from a well of spiritual depth, can change the world!

In my new role, I get to spend more time imagining possibilities for reaching people for Jesus, growing deeper disciples, creating innovative ministries, facilitating spiritual experiences, serving the community and the world, connecting with our neighbors, taking bold, prophetic stances, etc., etc.

Above all, my primary job is to lead people to Jesus, which is why I became a pastor in the first place!

In my opinion, what congregations need most from their pastors, especially their “Lead” pastor, is Jesus.  The most important contribution I can make to the health, vitality, growth and impact of any ministry I serve is the depth and quality of my own soul, as a result of the time I spend with Jesus.  The most important thing I have to offer – in worship, staff meetings, hospital visits, budget planning, employee supervision, building repairs, report writing, etc. – is the Jesus I know, love and serve with all of my heart, mind, soul and strength!  While there are many valid approaches to effective organizational leadership, churches need pastors who are first and foremost “spiritual” leaders, who walk with Jesus daily, as a true, living, personal Lord!

Yes, strategic vision matters for churches, but only if the vision is grounded in Jesus’ vision for the Kingdom of Heaven.

Yes, church employees need to be managed, by honoring their callings and spiritual development first, even more than their professional functioning.

Yes, church finances need to be administered, by understanding our roles as stewards of God’s Kingdom resources, entrusted to our care.

Yes, church buildings need to be maintained, but only as tools for making God known to the world.

Somebody needs to be asking, “What is Jesus’ vision for our church?  What is Jesus calling us to do and be?  How is Jesus calling us to learn and grow?  How does Jesus want us to spend these offerings?  How does Jesus want us to use these buildings?  Who does Jesus want us to serve?  Who does Jesus want us to fight for?”  Without that spiritual focus, churches easily drift toward varying degrees of self-preservation or self-indulgence.  While the pastor certainly doesn’t have, or need, exclusive claims to questions like these, if the pastor isn’t prayerfully asking, listening, and communicating Jesus’ answers, the church is in deep trouble.

And, too many churches are in trouble.  Churches of every denominational and theological stripe are declining and closing.  Even many growing, successful churches don’t seem to be producing the kind of disciples Jesus’ described in the Gospels.  Take a look at our culture, and you won’t find many tangible examples of the church’s effective witness or influence.

Could it be for lack of spiritual leadership?  Could it be too little Jesus in the lives and ministries of our spiritual leaders?

Time will tell if and how effective I will be as the “Lead” pastor of the First United Methodist Church of Orlando.  I’ve no doubt great intentionality is needed to stay spiritually-focused.  I’m certainly not claiming or suggesting I’m a better spiritual leader than I actually am, or that my spiritual leadership is particularly effective.  I can only claim my hope, desire and intent to be the very best “Lead” pastor I can be.

Really, my point isn’t about me at all.

My point is this:  Pastors, be spiritual leaders, above all else.  Pastors, your job is to offer people the Jesus you know, love, and serve.  No matter how burdensome the administration of your church might be, never forget your first love and your primary calling.

Pastors, your job is Jesus.


4 thoughts on “Spiritual Leadership

  1. Vance, I couldn’t agree more! Personally, I’d go a step further… instead of “Somebody needs to be asking” how about “Everybody needs to be asking”? I hope your move went well and that you begin to feel at home. God bless!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. There is something about going humbly and directly to Jesus with my concerns, my questions, my fears and my desire for guidance that illuminates my dependence on Love and Light to accept the Truth. A friend said to me yesterday, “When I’m living in MY will, I’m living in fear”. That is not where I want to live. Thank you and may you be richly blessed. Thank you for sharing your relationship with Jesus.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for these comments, Vance. The church is not the building, although we are greatly blessed here in Orlando. The church is the bride, humble and obedient always to Christ. The Catholic Churchs are magnificent be we all know how often they became politically corrupted. It is and always should be about putting our Lord first. Thank you again for these words of hope and grace.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s