Your calendar is full. Every day you juggle competing demands of important tasks, prioritizing what is most essential. It can get wearying. In the midst of daily pressures, what determines the difference between thriving and surviving? I have observed leader friends who have built up the discipline and capacity to carry heavy workloads day after day. They thrive on challenge and pushing themselves to ever greater limits. Does the secret to thriving as a leader lie in emulating them?
Leadership skills, knowledge and discipline all play into our effectiveness in serving God and others through leading. But there is one secret that makes the difference between thriving and surviving—or not surviving—in Christian leadership service. And those who live by it thrive, but not just because they enjoy self-challenge and getting things done.
Jesus came to earth to redefine spiritual priorities. One of his primary messages was that it is not just what we do that matters to God, but who we are in the inner self. The religious leaders of his day, the Pharisees and Sadducees, were curators of traditions based on striving ever more diligently to obey God, an admirable pursuit. Through the centuries Jewish rabbis had taken the God-given Law of Moses and expanded it to include “fence laws” designed to help people keep the commandments by putting virtual fences around that which was forbidden. It appears that our ancestor Adam started the tradition. Apparently he came up with the first fence law if he told Eve that God had said they were not to touch the forbidden tree, even though God had said only that they were not to eat its fruit. By not touching the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he and Eve reasoned, they surely would never eat of it (Gen. 3:2-3).
Unfortunately, fence laws don’t work against our desire to stray. We climb over them—or tear them down—on our way to independence and self-gratification. More rules don’t ensure compliance, or a changed heart. Instead, as the apostle Paul tells us, the law was meant to be a tutor which brings us to Christ, exposing our failures at self-reformation, our need of a Savior, and the truth that obeying God is a good thing, but it is not the most important life goal.
There was one scribe who did understand what was most important. Admiring Jesus’ skill in responding to difficult questions posed by the Sadducees, he asked a question without malice, designed to test the Teacher’s doctrine: “Which commandment is the most important of all?”
The Gospel of Mark (12:29-32) records that Jesus responded, "The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these."
The spirit of that religious clerk resonated with Jesus’ answer: "Well said, teacher," the man replied. "You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (Mark 12: 33-34)
Surely he who discerns the spirits of men took delight in this man as he affirmed the scribe’s perspective: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (Mark 12:34) To come into the kingdom, the only thing the scribe lacked was to recognize Jesus as more than a wise rabbi, to know and love the Teacher as God Incarnate. But the truth he brought to light brings us closer to the secret of thriving in all circumstances. To obey God we must focus on loving God.
To thrive as a leader, in the midst of serving God by serving others, we need to build a Sabbath lifestyle that fosters true heart devotion and love for God. To do so takes discipline, in denying ourselves some pleasures in our time “off,” and in resting more and working less, even when we know that working more would make us look good to others and to ourselves. This will require us to reject the American belief that working more always achieves more. Sometimes, to do more, we must do less.
In his book In the Name of Jesus (Crossroad Publishing, 1993) Catholic priest and pastor Henri Nouwen describes well how the pressures of performance hollow out our souls: “While efficiency and control are the great aspirations of our society, the loneliness, isolation, lack of friendship and intimacy, broken relationships, boredom, feelings of emptiness and depression, and a deep sense of uselessness fill the hearts of millions of people in our success-oriented world.”
Nouwen shared additional insight in his book Compassion (Image, Revised edition, 2016): “Much of our inner restlessness, nervousness, and tension is connected with our worries about the unknown future. Sometimes we try to alleviate these worries by far-reaching plans … Obedience is listening to a voice that speaks to us today and allowing ourselves to feel the loving care of God in our present lives … Apprehension, fear, and anxiety cannot sustain themselves in his presence. Fear always creates distance and divisions. But in the presence of God fear melts away. ‘In love there can be no fear, but fear is driven out by perfect love (1 John 4:18).’”
To recognize what is driving us and replace it with love of God in our inmost being, we must learn to listen to our hearts and our bodies again, instead of tuning them out. This will allow our spirits to listen to the Spirit of God. We need rest for our bodies and our souls through regular extended times alone with God. A pattern of life that nourishes our souls will include four key elements:
- Divert Daily (spend time with God and his Word and review the state of your soul with him)
- Withdraw Weekly (take an extended devotional time to read the Word of God and talk with and listen to God)
- Meditate Monthly (take a day a month for extended time with God)
- Abandon Annually (take a retreat away from your home and spend it with the Lord)
Put God on your calendar. And in these scheduled times with him, learn to set aside your performance self, and get down to the inner self he knows and loves, despite all its flaws. As you come into his presence, ask yourself questions like these:
- What is the state of my soul today?
- What emotions have dominated my life in recent days and weeks?
- What “loads” am I currently carrying that I can’t seem to “unload”?
- Are there affections or desires that are tempting me and distracting me from my affection for Jesus?
- What do you want to say to me today, Father, Son and Holy Spirit?
A Sabbath lifestyle of rest and focused devotion to God frees us from the fears that drive us. A dear spiritual director gave me a bit of concise advice that transformed my life. “Never… ever… ever… hurry.” When I tried to put this into practice, I discovered a world of fear and insecurity that was driving me—the fear of what others would think of me if I didn’t fulfill their expectations, the fear that God would not love me if I didn’t do more, the fear that maybe I was not really the person I wanted to be.
Slowing down your life can reveal the fears of your inner self. That revelation can be the first step towards allowing God to heal the wounds of your heart, which, you may find, will allow you to do more by doing less.
After five years of serving as director of learning & development with The Navigators, Peggy Reynoso continues to work in staff development, with a special interest in life-long spiritual formation. She studied with Dallas Willard in the Renovare Institute, and has written a chapter, “Formed Through Suffering,” in The Kingdom Life (NavPress, June 2016).