Note: This post is adapted from an email I sent this summer to the elders (one of the leadership teams) in my church.
One of the things that I have been thinking and reading about this summer is leadership development. Typically, the idea of leadership development has focused on how do we train new leaders to function well and make good decisions in an organization. While understanding systems and structures is important, there is another aspect of leadership development that I believe is even more critical: character formation.
A Call to Character Formation
During this past summer, our family was reading Galatians 5:13-26. A few of us started memorizing it together. These verses begin by emphasizing the freedom we have been given in Christ, urging us to love others through our freedom, rather than indulging in our own sinful desires.
The text also includes challenging verses which name not only big sins (sexual sins, idolatry, witchcraft), but also more socially acceptable ones like discord, factions, jealousy, envy, and self-ambition. As an elderly member of our congregation recently told me in response to sermons on envy and vainglory: “For 50 years in business, I was taught to distrust and do everything to destroy my competition. This is a very different message.”
Sadly, that tendency to view others through the lens of competition and selfish ambition finds its way into the church as well. I’ve been in several leadership conversations over the years where more attention is given to how we compare to other churches rather than to how we still need to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ.
Churches in the Reformed tradition, like the one in which I participate, have tended to pride ourselves on being more theologically astute, articulate, and correct than churches in other denominations. Our selfish-ambition and the factions and discord that we have fostered are usually rooted in a layer of self-righteousness piled around our theology.
We have tended to talk poorly about and look down upon other traditions, particularly those from baptist and Roman Catholic backgrounds, because we assume they don’t understand God’s covenantal grace in Jesus Christ like we do. The way we speak about others, particularly other Christians, reveals how much growing into Jesus’ grace and knowledge we still need to do.
What about Our Character Formation?
The Galatians passage our family has been reading ends with the fruit of the Spirit. As we’ve spent time in this text this summer, I recognized anew how the Spirit’s work in our lives is focused heavily on forming our character to be like Jesus.
Yes, the Spirit does other things, too. There are a few times in Scripture where the Spirit specifically tells someone what they need to do. Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, Peter and Cornelius, Ananias being sent to Saul in Damascus. More often though, the attention in Christian scripture is on the Spirit’s work in making us holy like God the Father, conforming us to the image of Jesus.
I recognize that this reflection could probably go on for a while (preachers can get long-winded in print just as easily as when talking). So here is the heart of what I am wondering: What would it be like for those of us in leadership roles to spend the coming year attending to our ongoing character formation as a primary aspect of our service as leaders?
One of the lines from the litany we use when we ordain elders and deacons is this: In the office bearers of the church, we see the love of Christ for His people. As the Lord of the church, Jesus calls servant leaders, and by His Spirit equips them, so that the whole body of Christ might be built up. Yes, we have specific tasks we are called to do as church leaders. But what seems more to the heart of our calling is that we model in our own lives how we, through the Spirit’s ongoing work in us, are learning to embody the love of Christ in our conversations, our attitudes, and our very character.
Transformed by the Gospel
The first part of our church’s vision statement speaks to this character formation as well: “Transformed by the gospel.” I wonder then, for those of us who serve as lead apprentices or lead disciples of Jesus within our local congregations, if a touchstone question might be: “how are we being transformed by the gospel today?”
Perhaps a question like that could shape the opening of our meetings or give a starting point to conversations with each other outside of our meetings. And in line with that question, I wonder if our repeated prayer for ourselves as leaders could be that the Spirit would equip us and transform us to have the same character that Christ Jesus had. (Philippians 2:1-11)