the shape of leadership

Four Characteristics of Ministry Leadership

The importance of being spiritual, relational, missional, and organizational

James T Bradford on December 17, 2015


Leadership is more than surviving next Sunday or making it through another board meeting or responding to yet another crisis. Leadership sees the big picture. Leadership peers into the future and points the direction to go. Leadership lifts people up and helps them to achieve their God-given potential. Leadership encourages people to work together in teams, and leadership gets out of the way to help others use their ministry gifts. Leadership clings to faith when others get nervous.

But how does leadership like that work? What are the most important things for ministry leaders to focus on in order to move people forward into God’s purposes for them?

In Luke 6:12–19 we meet Jesus the leader. Here, in three sequential events at a pivotal moment in His earthly ministry, Jesus timelessly modeled three primary characteristics of ministry leadership: it is spiritual, relational, and missional. These become the starting points for understanding our own oversight roles as ministry leaders.

Ministry Leadership Is Spiritual
“Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God” (Luke 6:12).

First and foremost, Jesus always integrated spiritual dynamics into his leadership—forty days of fasting before His ministry, nights of prayer during His ministry, and a lifestyle of unbroken communion with the Father throughout His ministry. Here in Luke 6:12 Jesus prayed all night before making an important leadership move.

Overseeing and cultivating spiritual vitality is a central responsibility of ministry leaders.
Overseeing and cultivating spiritual vitality is a central responsibility of ministry leaders. For the early church this meant the upper room before the outer courts, the day of Pentecost before world-changing ministry, and an unrelenting lifestyle of seeking God no matter what else they did. Our lives personally need a healthy spiritual center, but so do the ministries we lead. We’re dependent entirely on the Holy Spirit working with us. Ministry leadership is a partnership with God.

At a particularly plateaued time in my own pastoral ministry, the Lord spoke to me to go into the church sanctuary several days a week, walk the rows of seats, and do nothing but pray in the Spirit for an hour. The church was doing fine, but I had come to the end of my creativity and had run out of ideas. Although I was maintaining fairly well, I was at a loss as to how to lead the church to the next level.

By obediently walking that sanctuary and praying in tongues, the Lord made it possible for me to meet Him at the end of myself. He offloaded the pressure of the church’s future from me and took it onto Himself. The Holy Spirit prayed through me the mind of the Father (Rom. 8:27) when my mind had no idea what to pray anymore. In the years that followed, I found a certain effortlessness in leading the church that I hadn’t experienced earlier.

Jesus-styled leadership is first of all spiritual. It is praying hard, having faith, and staying full of the Holy Spirit. It is seeing people encounter God and watching His Spirit do things we can’t humanly account for.

Ministry Leadership Is Relational
“When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles” (Luke 6:13).

Jesus knew that preaching to large crowds alone wouldn’t serve His greater mission. In his classic book, The Master Plan of Evangelism, Robert Coleman writes: “While the church is looking for methods to move the multitudes, God is looking for men [and women] whom the multitudes will follow.” People are God’s agenda. So immediately after spending all night in prayer, Jesus chose twelve men to be with Him and to share His authority.

I have often heard a significant mentor in my life, Dr. George Wood, say “ministry flows out of relationship.” The kingdom of God is relational to its core. Jesus understood that and lived it. At some point early in our leadership lives we, too, need to take responsibility for having people around us who know us well, know how to pray for us specifically, and know how to partner with us in ministry. We dare not lead alone.

"Ministry flows out of relationship." ~George O. Wood
Except for praying, getting the right people around us doing the right things is some of the hardest and most important work we do as leaders. If we’re intimidated by having strong people on our team, we’ll hold onto ministry too tightly and become far too controlling. This will devalue and demotivate gifted people around us, eventually pushing them away from us. As one pastor friend of mine put it, “We take the smartest people in our churches and put them in the most mindless roles.”

In spite of our insecurities, there’s a better way to lead, and Jesus modeled it. Early in His ministry He decided to balance the demands of ministering to the multitudes with the time it took to invest in a small circle of twelve potential leaders. The ministry-empowering fire of the Holy Spirit would later fall on them at Pentecost, and Jesus’ church would begin to grow.

In essence, Jesus made the decision to not only minister to people but through people. To this day, the growth of many ministries is dependent on that pivotal leadership decision. For Jesus, this meant intentional relationship with His disciples in all of its dimensions—fellowship, training, and accountability. Today we would call this nurturing and networking. As ministry leaders, one of our key oversight responsibilities is to nurture relationships with those we lead and facilitate networks of relationships between those we lead.

Ministry Leadership Is Missional
Immediately after praying through the night and then choosing His closest associates, Jesus “went down with them” into a large crowd, according to Luke 6:17. “Those troubled by impure spirits were cured, and the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing them all” (Luke 6:17–19). Leadership that is spiritual and relational must also become leadership that is missional. Inwardness and lack of vision to reach lost people misses the heart of God and is fatal to our future.

In Acts 1:8, Jesus clearly linked Spirit and mission: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” We can’t be Pentecostal in identity if we aren’t missional in priority and activity. The baptism of the Holy Spirit does more than make us feel better. It sends us into the world and equips us with the power we need to reach people for Christ.

The great missionary-minded pastor from Canada, Oswald J. Smith, wrote in his convicting book, The Cry of the World, “We should have kept before us our Lord’s post-resurrection commands. We should have evangelized the world. Otherwise we have no ground for our existence as a church. There is no reason why we should have churches unless they are reaching out to those who have never heard.”

Every ministry needs a mission. Effective ministry leaders never lose sight of that and never stop working towards it. They feel the responsibility to do whatever it takes to remove obstacles to reaching lost and hurting people. Missional leaders unapologetically seek results, solve problems, and find ways to get things done, never taking refuge in the predictable or the familiar or the safe. Jesus said “Go,” so they refuse to sit.

Ministry Leadership Is Also Organizational
So far we’ve seen that Jesus modeled ministry leadership that was spiritual, relational, and missional, thus providing a strategic template for our own oversight priorities as ministry leaders. But it is organizational structure that functionally connects the spiritual, relational, and missional together. It constitutes the fourth focus of a leader.

One of my favorite leadership verses is . . .

"The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but victory rests with the Lord" (Proverbs 21:31).

There’s a profound difference between leading and simply responding.
Here we have pictured a holistic partnership between God’s Spirit and our stewardship. The emphasis is on the right thing. There is no victory without the Lord. But making ready the “horse” for battle is our part. Good administrative systems won’t usher in revival or bring spiritual breakthroughs, but without some kind of structural order, sustainable ministry that conserves the fruit of renewal won’t be possible.

A successful young entrepreneur who served on one of my church boards once explained to me, “I’m not necessarily smarter than other people, just better organized.” While many of our personal strengths as ministry leaders may lean toward relationship building and pastoral care, the basic organizational skills needed for leadership can still be learned in a way that stays true to our personalities and God’s anointing on our lives. The key is intentionality. There’s a profound difference between leading and simply responding. Being intentional is what makes the difference.

Flexing for emergencies and fighting off distractions is an inevitable part of any leader’s life. But good leadership is more than just being dragged from crisis to crisis all the time. It’s deciding up front the most important things that we should be doing and then determining to not sacrifice those priorities to matters of secondary importance. Getting out of reactionary mode and having a system, or strategy, for staying focused on our key leadership roles is what makes the difference.

The first of the Four Spiritual Laws developed by Dr. Bill Bright, is a famous one: “God loves you and offers a wonderful plan for your life.” Unfortunately, I discovered as a pastor that there were a lot of people in my life who also loved me and had a wonderful plan for my life. Good leadership requires scheduling our priorities into our calendars before other people fill our calendars for us. That is intentionality.

This article is excerpted with permission from James T. Bradford's Lead So Others Can Follow (Salubris Resources), available in print and digital formats.

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