“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” ~ John 15:5
For all of its necessary skills around strategy and visioncasting and goal-setting and team dynamics, leadership in the Body of Christ is ultimately dependent on one thing, and one thing only: A vibrant, surrendered, ever-deepening intimacy with God.
Without that, we’re just pretenders.
There is a specific kind of blindness that comes on Christian leaders at times. It’s the inability to see the utter futility of believing we can effectively lead the Body of Christ without being intimately connected to Christ himself, who is the Head. Intimacy with God is not optional for leaders. It is the ultimate goal and essential priority for every genuine follower of Christ.
Thus says the Lord, “Let not a wise man boast of his wisdom, and let not the mighty man boast of his might, let not a rich man boast of his riches; but let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord who exercises lovingkindness, justice and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things,” declares the Lord. ~ Jeremiah 9:23-24
I have a good friend who serves on the leadership team for a men’s organization in Los Angeles. In many ways, his men’s organization is structured like a typical church ministry. There are small group activities, service projects, and regular messages of encouragement from the leadership designed to build connection and community and to help the members take steps of personal growth. There’s even an annual retreat for all the members, where leaders sponsor workshops to directly address areas of deep wounding in the members’ lives. Every year hundreds of men gather at this event and experience the richness of community and healing they all so desperately need.
For many men who attend, it’s a really powerful time. But it’s not a Christian organization ~ it is, in fact, a support community for gay men in L.A. ~ so when they have a particularly powerful retreat or lots of new members get plugged into their community, nobody says that God did it or that it all happened by the power of the Holy Spirit.
But when the exact same things happen in our faith communities ~ that is, when people find healing from old wounds, experience a sense of belonging, or lots of new people get plugged into our community ~ we say it’s God supernaturally at work in our midst.
So, is it these gay men who fail to recognize what God’s supernatural power looks like, or is it us?
Another friend of mine serves as a spiritual director for pastors and Christian leaders all around the country. One day he was meeting with a pastor who was weighed down by some leadership challenges he didn’t quite know how to navigate. They were driving together to spend a few hours out in the country, and on their way they passed a huge church that the pastor had founded and left years before.
As the pastor looked at the magnificent building, he shook his head and said, “Anger built that church.”
“What do you mean?” asked my spiritual director friend.
“Everything I did to build that church from nothing and make it a success was fueled by anger at my father, who believed I would never amount to anything. I built that church to prove to him he was wrong.”
I wonder how many leaders are running on fuels other than God’s Spirit. I wonder how many of the “victories” we cite as evidence that God is supernaturally at work in our midst are actually just the result of natural human dynamics.
I’m not saying that God is not present in any of these things. I’m not saying He can’t use a church that was built on a man’s anger at his father. I’m not saying that God isn’t thrilled when we create small groups where people find healing and feel like they belong. I think God remains very present with us in all that we do, even if we aren’t particularly present with Him.
I’m saying that the Church is supposed to look profoundly and mysteriously different from other communities in the world (1 Peter 2:9). I’m saying it’s supposed to be fueled and defined by a supernatural presence and power that the world cannot match (John 17:22-23). I’m saying that much of what we accomplish today in the name of Christ is due almost entirely to human strategy and ingenuity and does not bear the marks of God’s supernatural work, though we say it does.
I’m saying many of us as leaders have forgotten what it means to live and lead supernaturally because we have not made relational intimacy with God our first priority, and so have lost connection with the Head (Colossians 1:18).
The Apostle Paul understood this danger for the Church, and targeted many of his prayers and teachings against it:
I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. ~ Ephesians 1:17-23
Jesus’ instruction regarding the imperative of ongoing intimacy with Him is even more direct:
Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. ~ John 15:4-8
As John Eldredge has so aptly put it: “Vine, branch. Anything else is madness.”
This post is an excerpt from my ebook Leading Wide Awake: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Faith Leaders. Download the rest of the book here.
Meantime, I’m curious: How has this “madness” seeped into your leadership? What have you done about it?