For the past fifteen years I have had opportunities to meet with a wide variety of congregational, conference, and agency leadership teams to look at their processes and practices. Generally, I am there by invitation to offer insights and suggestions for improvement. One of my most frequent suggestions often meets with strong resistance, and I can never understand why. The suggestion? To spend more time in prayer, scriptural study, reflection, and discernment. The resistance? We’re too busy. Among some of the other responses — from both clergy and laity:
- we can’t waste valuable time
- what good would any of that do?
- we don’t do that here
- we need to stay focused on real business
- you can’t be serious
Well, you get the drift. Even among churches that are open to the suggestions, there is often a wide-eyed innocence as people say they never thought of it before. All too often, there is a resigned sense that it won’t do any good. When did we disconnect the spiritual business of our churches from the day-to-day busyness of the church?
Not too long ago I met with a long-time church financial adviser who told me, “there is a place for prayer in the church, but prayer doesn’t pay the bills. We want people to pray, but we need them to be practical as well.” Prayer is impractical? Some things warrant prayer, while others don’t? Doesn’t God have any say in what we do as the church?
All of these are important questions to me, because among the healthiest, most effective churches and church-related groups I meet with are those who are deeply grounded in shared spiritual practices. The study and discussion of scripture is central, not peripheral. Leaders open and close meetings with prayer, but it is not uncommon for anyone at the table to call for a time of prayer and silence during meetings and before major decisions. Some of the best Christian leaders I know set aside time together just for prayer, worship, study, and retreat. The most compelling leaders are not those to teach about spiritual practices, but are those who model and regularly engage in spiritual practices.
One of the important distinctions I notice is that doing spiritual things is not what makes a person a spiritual leader, but growing in spirituality leads to doing spiritual things. Praying doesn’t make a person more focused on God’s will, but a foundational commitment to seek and do God’s will draws a person into prayer, scripture, reflection, and intensive discussion. When the primary driver is to understand and please God, spiritual practices are less disciplines and more pleasures. Prayer is not a punishment, but a privilege. Effective leaders enjoy their time of prayer and wouldn’t give it up for anything. There is no such thing as “too busy” to pray.
Another distinction I note between effective and less effective leaders is a subtle but significant shift in understanding about what ministry is. A few years ago I visited two churches in Florida. A large, active church held a celebration service on Sunday morning, and the worship leader proclaimed, “let us celebrate all the wonderful work we do in the name of God.” A smaller, but no less active — and in many ways more active — church held a similar service, but the Lay Leader of this congregation invited everyone to “celebrate the wondrous work God is doing through our fellowship.” When ministry is what we do for God, it is more of a burden than when ministry is what God does through us. And guess which view belongs to the leaders who are more fully and regularly grounded in prayer, study, discussion, and reflection?
A young pastor confessed to me recently that she was “not sure that prayer really does anything.” When I asked her what she thought prayer should do, she said, “well, we never get a clear message from God about what we should do.” This woman made me step back and think about not only our desire to pray, but our expectations as well. Effective leaders don’t expect God to deliver a blueprint to faithfulness, but they do seek an assurance that they are on a valid and valuable path — that they are pursuing goals and objectives for the right reasons, and that the ministries of the congregation align well with scripture, shared values, mission, vision, gifts, passions, and opportunities to honor and glorify God in the best way possible. Theirs is a Gethsemane prayer style: not our will be done, but thine O Lord. They open themselves to the guidance of God’s Spirit through silence, scripture, and the insights and intuitions of each other. Consensus isn’t something they build, but something that blossoms and blooms throughout the group.
It troubles me that some of our church leaders see no benefit from or need of prayer. I am sad that some find themselves so busy that they have little or no time to study the scriptures. Only about 1-in-5 of the churches I have worked with understand what I mean by “discernment,” so it’s safe to say that the majority of our churches don’t spend much time engaging in it. And real Christian conference — open dialogue about our faith, our sense of God’s will personally, as well as for our congregations — generally degrades into debate and a vote to figure out who wins and who loses. There is really only one good solution I have found in all my years working with leadership teams: try it. Make a decision to seek to do all things in alignment with God’s will. Don’t know what God’s will is? Pray. Read the Bible. Meditate. Discuss. Take a walk. Pray some more. See how it impacts your decisions. See how it changes your relationships. See how it deepens the sense of God’s presence and guidance in your ministry. It’s cool.