The Spiritual Formation of Mission Leaders

by David Teague

The author discusses the importance of communion,
community, and ministry in leadership.

For the past few years our team has been focusing on mission leadership development. Specifically, we have sought to answer the question, “What is the best way to promote spiritual formation among mission leaders?”

In the early twentieth century, it was widely felt that the best way to become a good leader was to imitate the qualities and behaviors of other “giant” leaders. J. Oswald Sanders reflects this thinking in his famous book on mission-leader spirituality (1967), which lists the spiritual expectations of a mission leader.

Since then, we have recognized that merely imitating giants does not turn us into good leaders. Effective leadership also depends on developing personal authenticity, not just slavishly copying someone else. This is why the emphasis in leadership studies has shifted toward recognizing the unique giftedness of each individual, promoting his or her inner healing, and developing his or her own authenticity.

Utilizing this latest thinking in leadership development, we have conducted “Godly Leader” seminars for mission leaders. The following is a summary of what we have been learning and doing in these seminars.

The Basic Pattern: Communion, Community, Ministry
We developed our approach around the three-fold pattern which Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) noticed in Jesus’ leadership. Jesus first spent time in communion with God. Then, he built relationships in the community of a “ministry team”—the apostles. Finally, he ministered out of these relationships. Jesus’ leadership followed a pattern of “communion, community, and ministry.”

Nouwen’s insight can be applied to mission leadership. To lead well, we must first have authentic, healthy relationships with God and others. When these are sound, it heals our inner brokenness and we become more able to reflect the character of God in how we lead. “Communion, community, ministry” is a convenient model to understand the spiritual formation of godly leaders. Let’s look at it in more detail.

1. Deepening Our Communion with God
At first glance, we tend to think of spiritual formation as learning biblical principles. In reality, an intellectual knowledge about God is not the same as trusting in God’s sufficiency in the midst of our fears and needs. Spiritual formation takes place only when we struggle with the dark aspects of our lives and experience God’s work of transformation. It must extend to our hearts, not just our heads.

The implication is clear: to grow spiritually, we must face what is within us and bring it to God. The brokenness of our lives is actually the growing edge of our faith. Hiding from our personal struggles only weakens our spiritual development.

It is easy for leaders to hide from their struggles. Since people come to us for strength and guidance, we live our lives on pedestals. Our schedules are full and our lives are performance-oriented, giving us less time for introspection.

The unresolved brokenness in our lives, however, is still there, and does not go away simply because we take on leadership roles. Eventually, it will seep through and begin to stain our leadership. We may:

• Find ourselves unable to reflect the character of God as we intend
• Exude overly controlling behaviors, anger, suspicion, or jealousy
• Find ourselves working compulsively, being people pleasers, or fearing others
• Become narcissistic or wrongly base our sense of significance on position and power
• Have unresolved issues that are crystal clear to others
To serve well, we must be well. Inner healing comes by encountering the God of healing.

This is why, during our seminars, we first focus on re-kindling intimacy with God. Leaders who come to us are usually quite tired and in need of spiritual recharging. On day one, we set aside time for a private retreat. We tell each person to go into the quiet and simply be with God. We tell them to dwell on how much God loves them.

Afterwards, participants are often very willing to talk about their struggles. It is important not to force people into vulnerability, but instead to concentrate on the love and mercy of God. When we feel safe and loved by God, we become more willing to make ourselves vulnerable to each other.

Next, we give leaders a crash course on spiritual formation. We do this in a variety of ways.

Spiritual disciplines. Since many evangelicals are not familiar with the spiritual disciplines, we explain the differences and show how they can be used in different seasons of our lives. Two resources are particularly helpful: Richard J. Foster’s Celebration of Discipline (1978) and Adele Ahlberg Calhoun’s Spiritual Disciplines Handbook (2005).

Traditions of spirituality. Evangelicals also tend to be unfamiliar with the various traditions of spirituality within Christianity. In his book, Streams of Living Water (2001), Foster describes six of these traditions. During the seminar, participants group themselves according to their own spiritual tradition. Each group then describes the strengths and weaknesses of their tradition and we compare our answers to Foster’s.

Personality-spirituality connection. Evangelicals are also weak in understanding the relationship between personality and spirituality. For instance, some of us prefer to worship in an orderly way, while others crave spontaneity. In his book, Your Personality and the Spiritual Life (1999), Reginald Johnson explains personality theory. Based on his material, we ask leaders to identify their own personality type and then ponder the ramifications for our spiritual lives and leadership.

Spiritual formation. We also further deepen the leaders’ understanding of spiritual formation. We hold a “life-story retreat” in which we review our walk with God and set goals for the immediate future. We introduce people to spiritual direction, explaining what it is and offering it to individuals. We teach about non-verbal forms of prayer, such as listening prayer and contemplative prayer.

Through the entire seminar we become honest with God about ourselves and practice the various spiritual disciplines. As a result, Christ becomes formed within us and begins to heal our inner brokenness.

2. Developing True Community with Others
Inner healing happens when we encounter the God of healing; however, we should remember that we experience God through each other—not just on our own. This is why our second major focus is on developing community. We do this by asking participants to enter into a covenant relationship with one other person for the four days of the seminar.

A covenant relationship occurs when we become mutually accountable for our spiritual growth. Within these relationships, we emphasize confidentiality, honest sharing, and intentional spiritual growth. A covenant relationship should be a place of safety where we can be honest about our personal struggles and share God’s healing love with each other.

The groups meet immediately following the life-review retreat. Since participants will have recently spent a few hours thinking about their lives, they are ready to share their stories with their covenant partner. This initial sharing sets the tone for subsequent meetings in which covenant partners may talk further about their goals for spiritual transformation and pray for each other.

Our goal is to encourage leaders to form their own covenant relationships in the future. When we have close spiritual friends with whom we make ourselves accountable, we immediately see the impact. Such relationships can produce some of the deepest spiritual growth in our lives. Permanent groups can number up to six people, but smaller groups have more success at maintaining commitment and continuity.

3. Leading Spiritually
As we become honest with God about our inner brokenness and engage in a variety of spiritual disciplines, Christ forms within us and our brokenness is gradually healed. This makes us better able to reflect the character of God so we can lead others in a more godly and spiritual way. Let’s see how this plays out in four areas of leadership.

Conflict management. One common challenge in leadership is knowing how to deal with conflict. Since our task is to move people toward objectives, we often face intransigent attitudes and competing interests among the people we lead. To manage conflict, we can follow the standard principles of conflict management; Christian spirituality, however, goes further by cultivating within us the heart of a peacemaker. Merely following the techniques of conflict management is not enough; we need to overcome our own pride and destructive anger and replace them with the spiritual virtues of humility, compassion, and non-judgmentalism. This enables us to truly listen (instead of reacting) to people who are angry.

Professional envy. In subtle, even unconscious ways, we may find ourselves undermining others or wanting to see them lose influence. As we become spiritually formed in Christ, we recognize this tendency and can change it. Since envy is a failure to seek the good of others, we can adopt spiritual disciplines which will help other people succeed. Three disciplines that can help in this area are: mentoring (selflessly developing the potential of other people); intentional prayer (for the welfare of those we might otherwise envy); and being in a covenant group (which teaches us that both we and others have value).

Ethical decision-making. Since leadership involves the use of power to influence others toward a goal, ethical issues often arise over how we use that power. Our decisions will affect the lives of others, for good or bad.

We all want to do the right thing, but it is often hard to determine what is right in an ethically complex situation. People rely on their own sense of what is ethical to guide their decisions, but for each of us, our senses will be limited. For instance, some consider the ethical thing to be whatever accomplishes the “greatest good.” However, we do not always know what the greatest good will be in the long run. Our sense of the “greatest good” can become warped (e.g., the Nazis’ attempt to exterminate the Jewish race).

We may also seek to do the “most correct thing,” the “most loving thing,” the “most just thing,” the “most responsible thing,” the “most honorable thing,” or the “most loyal thing.” Each of these has limitations as well.

As we become spiritually formed, we learn to listen in humility to other perspectives. Instead of thinking that our own sense of what is ethical is the most valid, humility enables us to learn from each other. Together, we become more likely to make the best ethical decision in a complex situation.

This is especially important for multi-cultural teams, since each culture will have its own well-developed ethical sense, which can lead to misunderstanding and conflict on a team. A multi-dimensional approach to ethics can be fostered only when there is a spirit of humility among leaders.

Bitterness. Those in leadership can always find a reason to become bitter. People may fail us or talk about us unfairly. They may scrutinize us mercilessly, or simply take us for granted. They may assume we are responsible for everything, and yet we know that not everything is under our control. Bitterness can build up like rust in a pipe.

The spiritual discipline of unconditional forgiveness helps to scrape such bitterness away. Unconditional forgiveness is intentionally forgiving others, whether or not they admit fault. If we wait for people to admit fault before we forgive them, we’re often left to stew in our own juices; however, unconditional forgiveness enables us to be free from this. It is to our benefit to forgive unconditionally. When we choose to forgive, we also are choosing a better future for ourselves.

As mission leaders, many people look to us as being great spiritual role models. The reality is that we all struggle with our humanness. I’ve never met a leader who was “crack-free,” so to speak. Let’s face it: our roles also tend to separate us from our souls.

But when we truly become spiritually formed, the presence of Christ grows within us, transforms us, and gradually heals our inner brokenness. When this happens, it affects how we lead in many subtle yet significant ways. Leadership will not simply be the things we do. It will also be the spirit by which we do things.

Calhoun, Adele Ahlberg. 2005. Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices that Transform Us. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.

Foster, Richard J. 1978. Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

_____. 2001. Streams of Living Water. New York: HarperOne.

Johnson, Reginald. 1999. Your Personality and the Spiritual Life. Gainesville, Fla.: Center for Applications of Psychological Type.

Sanders, J. Oswald. 1994 (1967). Spiritual Leadership. 2nd rev. ed. Chicago: Moody Publishers.


Dr. David Teague served in the Middle East from 1983 to 1992. He is an adjunct professor for Gordon-Conwell Seminary and conducts “Godly Leader” seminars for mission leaders. He can be reached at

EMQ, Vol. 48, No. 2, pp. 190-195. Copyright  © 2012 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


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