7 Qualities of a Spiritual Leader

February 14, 2024

The Seven Qualities of a Spiritual Leader (That You’re Probably Going to Hate… )

By Dr. Cliff Winters

Don’t train leaders without first training them to be godly.

I suppose everybody has their own issues and needs when it comes to spiritual leadership.  Some pastors are in the midst of building campaigns; some are trying to work a culture change within their congregations, and some are in a battle for their careers and ministries.  And people who are not pastors have needs that are just as real—in their homes, in their families, in their workplaces and retreat spaces, and even alone.  We are all,7 qualities of spiritual leaders ultimately, accountable for how we’ve led our own lives (1 Corinthians 7:24, Matthew 12:36).

This is my concern:  that we, hypocratically, do no harm.  It need hardly be said that the church (and the wider world) has suffered unduly from poor spiritual leadership over the centuries:  sexual abuse[1] and financial swindling,[2] apocalyptic hysteria[3] and congregational bullying,[4] inquisitions[5] and crusades.[6]  I mean, that was one of the larger points of the Reformation, was it not? That the spiritually ruling elite had taken control over the church with little or no concern for the powerless multitudes and little or no ability to lead them spiritually. They constructed great monuments, no doubt. They waged great wars (if there are such things).  They built up and tore down cities and whole civilizations.  They were leaders.

But they weren’t always spiritual ones.

When Jesus called his followers to him to explain what the next phase of the church would be like, there was no talk of buildings or wars, much less abuse and grift. No, there really was very little content at all, except for this one little piece: be humble. Matthew 20:25–28: “Jesus called his disciples together and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the gentiles lord it over them and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the son of man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’”  Over-officiousness, authoritativeness, power-mongering—those aren’t us.  That is not us.

I worry about the health of the church and its leadership.  Often, when the modern church thinks about “spiritual leadership,” we’re more concerned about the “leadership” part and less the “spiritual,” as if power were somehow more fundamental or important.  Folks, this should not be. I am a spiritual leader, I serve in a church and in a college of spiritual leaders; and, in both settings, I actively work toward forming people into spiritual leaders.  We are not failing at tactics.  We are not leaving people without ways and means of making their voice heard.  But where we do often fail is in leaving people unformed in the Spirit of Jesus Christ.  We have exchanged Person for power—”the truth of God for a lie” (Romans 1:25).  We love power.  We are fascinated with it, consumed in seeking it, and proved right by achieving it.

And that is anathema to the gospel of Jesus Christ (Revelation 18:10).

It’s funny to think that Christ had a personality.  I grew up with Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus–a transcendent, otherworldly Christ, ineffable and unknowable.[7] Jesus isn’t like that.  Which of course means—in good, Trinitarian fashion—that God isn’t like that.  Yes, God has a personality! He’s like some things (Psalm 35:10) and he’s not like other things (Psalm 50:21). And what he’s like is humble.  “Take my yoke upon you,” Jesus said, “and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:29).  Jesus could lay down his divinity (Philippians 2:6), lay down his royal authority (John 18:36), and lay down his life (John 10:15)—even on a cross (Philippians 2:8).  That isn’t the work of someone who values power over person.  Insofar as it is leadership, it is leadership of, and as, a “servant” (Matthew 12:18).  I really can’t overstate this: if you want to lead like Jesus did, you must do it humbly and sacrificially.

This is not what I was taught. I was taught to be strident, I was taught to win friends and influence people,[8] I was taught to be forceful and direct and authoritative. In other words, I was taught to manipulate people. Now, I get it! Work has to get done. We only have so many hours in the day, and after all somebody has to have their hand on the wheel.  Why not me?

Because that wheel belongs to somebody else.

Brothers and sisters, we are Christians. And that means that we do not follow each other. We follow Jesus Christ. And, in as much as we are spiritual leaders, we encourage others to follow Jesus Christ, not ourselves. This is the difference between leadership and spiritual leadership. We are called to arrange a meeting between people and their Lord, and then get out of the way (Hebrews 8:11). Again, is this not what the Reformation was all about? Your own Bible? Your own prayers in your own language, worshiping your own way?

So, as I present to you what I believe to be “the seven characteristics of a spiritual leader,” you will hear nothing of practiced speech, of calm and self-possessed demeanor, of strong conviction and piercing gaze. No. Nope. That isn’t us. If we are leaders in any sense, we are shepherds, standing in for the good shepherd of the sheep (John 10:12–15). We are stand-ins—that’s all. And I am not going to expend any more energy or give any wisdom or any further credence to how to take control of someone else’s mind or life or being. That is what the gentiles do.  That is what the powerful do.  That is not us.


There seem to me to be seven characteristics of a person qualified to teach, preach, speak, write, lead in the church.  But they’re not ones you’re likely to expect, because not one of them has anything to do with leading.  This is not an oversight.  I am not thinking about one thing and writing about another.  It’s a statement here and now that I agree with Jesus that we are supposed to be very much unlike, and even contrary to, the power and authority structures of the world (Revelation 17:14).  And if, at the end of the day, you disagree with me, all I can say is check your heart.  I know you want good.  I know you want to do your best, and to bring the best out of others.  But I am convinced that there is no good in us without God (Romans 7), and God in us is all we need to change the world (Romans 8).  If you are otherwise convinced, nothing that follows will be of any use to you at all.

1.       Love God

What’s the greatest commandment?  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, spirit, and strength,” right?  Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30, Luke 10:27.  Love him.  That’s the center point, not just of leadership, but of all we do.  And I put it at the beginning because it is the first and most essential piece of leadership.  Many a leader of Israel had the worldly bona fides, but “their hearts are far from me,” God says (Isaiah 29:13).  God doesn’t want—and as a leader and a trainer in the church, I do not want—to release any more people out into ministry who don’t really love him.  There’s a passion that must come before leadership.

Do you know how the Levites became the priestly tribe?  All the other tribes had tribal allotments, but the Levites, alone, were granted special permission to dwell at God’s temple, to oversee its ministrations, and to provide the sacrifices that set men and women free.  They were special—unique even among the chosen people of God.  Why?  Because they were passionate for the Lord.  Israel had been sinning while Moses was up on the mountain receiving the covenant.  They had built a golden calf and were claiming that this dumb idol had been their ticket out of Egypt (Exodus 32:4).  When Moses came down from being in the very presence of God… yeah, he was a little incensed at what he saw.  And so, he commanded those who were “for the LORD” (Exodus 32:26) to rally to him and to slaughter their errant “brothers and friends and neighbors.”  The people who responded were the Levites.  And that is why God set them apart for their priestly roles (Exodus 32:29).  Passion.  Love.  Being “for the LORD.”  They might have been a little over-aggressive, but they did not lack in love for God.

It’s interesting how Jesus talks about the love of God and others.  He says that all of the law and the prophets “hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:40).  The word “hang” is a structural word.  Weight is held up by it.  Structures are secured by it.  The very structure of biblical authority relies on loving God and neighbor.  Jesus saw all of the things God was trying to do in the world, and he felt like it all hinged on this one thing:  love.  Nothing of the other parts of God’s word could have any lasting effect—no promises or parables or proverbs—without the love of God and others.  It’s not just that it’s the most important command.  It is, structurally, the most basic.  Anything I do can only move the kingdom of God forward if it is done out of love (1 Corinthians 13:1–3).

I don’t think the church knows this.  I don’t think we see the structure of biblical authority that way.  It seems like we think that, if we win power, we can make people do right (whatever we mean by that), and our job is done.  Not only is it not done, forcing people to submit is the antithesis of the Greatest Commandment.  It removes love from the equation.  It removes love as the hinge, the hanger, the new motivation that makes the world new (1 John 4:18).  This is a biblical-theological, structural issue.  Don’t—ever—try to force someone to follow.  Help them understand the “why.”  Let it be known why we choose this or that venture, this or that family vacation, this or that carpet in the narthex.  Show them how it fulfills God’s command to love him and others, and make it normative for all decisions to be made that way.  That is leadership of and by the Spirit.Love God to be a spiritual leader.

This tactic has a couple of salutary effects.  Firstly, it democratizes authority.  I’m only a spiritual leader insofar as I am able to draw the connection between decisions and the love of God.  If I can’t explain why my decision is made in love, my decision cannot be authoritative in the church.  Boy, how would that change how the church handles its decisions?!  Haha!  Oh, Lord, let it be!  And, secondly, it would remove false motivations from the equation.  If I’m just in a position of authority because I’m well-spoken or loud or forceful or popular, I can sway people—manipulate people—for any possible end that I want:  enrichment, sexual gratification, getting my own way.  The church has had enough of such “leaders.”  No, if I tie (as Jesus did) authority to love (Philippians 2:8–11), then the motivations that lead the church can become loving; and we’ll stop abusing and manipulating our congregations or friends or family.  Make love the hinge.  Make it the hanger on which rests all authority you claim as a leader.  Make it a matter of accountability!  Let people know that we only have authority insofar as we are trying to steer our church or our family or our friends out of love.  Then you have empowered them to call you on it when you fail.  And, brothers and sisters, that will have the added benefit of helping you not to fail.

Love is our hinge, the basis on which we make any decision, and therefore the basis on which we lead.  Any other choice—expedience, pride, fear, selfishness—robs our groups of the gospel.  And so, it robs our “leadership” of any claim to be “spiritual.”

2.       Listen to God

There’s a sense in which these seven qualifications of a spiritual leader are progressive.  Anything else that you do with or for God is based on your love of him.  As Jesus said, it’s our “hanger,” our motivation.  This is because of how the gospel works.  God has always loved you (Jeremiah 31:3).  He loved you before you were born (Jeremiah 1:5).  The good news brings new life about when we finally come to believe in that love (John 3:16).  Having a loving relationship with God is the start of the spiritual life, and so it must be the start of spiritual leadership.  That’s just common sense.  But, once you’ve come to that realization, and can confess your faith in that love, some other wonderful things start to happen.

You start listening to God. 

This goes beyond prayer, though it obviously includes prayer.  There is a spiritual ability to “hear” God that especially Paul makes a lot of.  Romans 10:14–15:  “How can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?  And how can they preach unless they are sent?”  People start, at some point in their spiritual lives, to hear from God.  And it is the beginning of a great change in us.  At one point we “had ears but could not hear” (Mark 8:18).  We did not submit to the will of God, nor could we “do so” (Romans 8:7).  We were insensitive to the leadings of God.  But Christ changed all that, partly by being the change.  “I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me,” (John 8:28).  He knew how to listen, how to follow the will of God, and so he knew how to lead.Listen to God

Please, please remove from your mind the idea that you need people to follow you.  I know that would make your life and your ministry easier, at least in the short term; but it would take the very spirit out of your leadership.  We aren’t leading people down our own paths.  Captains don’t lead troops toward their own goals.  Someone else is in charge, someone “higher up,” if you will.  And it’s his direction that we need to give.  We are, like Jesus, “passing on” what we have learned.  We are sending the orders down the chain.  It is in this way that we are the “hired shepherds,” and not the shepherds ourselves.  You, human, do not know “what God has prepared for those who love him,” but God does (1 Corinthians 2:9).

And so, it is because of this that I say that the next big evolution in the creation of a true spiritual leader is that we become listeners.  Israel had it’s fill of false prophets and people who spoke according to their own wisdom and knowledge, who treated the wounds of it’s people as if they were not serious, and who hearts (and ears) became as hard as stone.  Not so the true spiritual leader.  We lead in the way of Christ, and so we need to be listening to Christ; and we cannot lead without his voice in our ears.

3.       Repent to God

One of the cool things that happens when you start listening to God is that you discover some points in your life that are painful.  Things that have gone wrong, practices that hurt you or those around you, things you wish weren’t there.  The reason for this is that God highlights those things for us.  We commonly call them “sins,” but really they’re anything that get in the way of the first commandment (loving God and loving others as we love ourselves).  Things that we do that aren’t loving toward ourselves or God or others—things not in keeping with the gospel which we have just heard about—start to get highlighted.  This is, spiritually speaking, because we are becoming alive in Christ.  The tendons and heart and nervous system that had been dead in sin are starting to move again, to feel again, and some things can start to feel… not great.  That’s GREAT!!  That means your spiritual eyes and ears really are being opened.  God really is there!

But it calls for action. 

Jesus takes repentance seriously—so seriously that he instituted it as part of our daily prayers:  “give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts…” (Matthew 6:11–12||Luke 11:3–4).  But I think a lot of us aren’t as familiar as, say, the ancient Israelites were with what we need to do in order to repent.  John the Baptist (best of the OT, don’t you know; Matthew 11:11) gave this great piece of advice to a group of people who were super good at pretending to repent:  “produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8||Luke 3:8).

Produce fruit.

There’s something that repentance is supposed to result in, something that it looks like and tastes like.  And that something should make us look like the children of promise, the children of Abraham, the children of God (Matthew 3:9||Luke 3:8).  This is an ethical outcome, an outcome that others can see (“fruit” is always something you can “see” in Scripture; e.g., John 15:8).  I want to argue that the thing that is produced in true repentance—the real “repentance fruit”—is love (Ephesians 4:15).  When we discover through our contact with God’s Spirit, and through listening to God’s Spirit, that there is some “wicked way in” (Psalm 139:24), we begin to work on those wounds.  We begin to fix what was broken and heal what was hurting.  We begin to love again.  The natural outflow of learning that we have a weakness or ailment is to fix it, to get better, and to celebrate those things.

Our celebration of God’s help and faithfulness is the fruit I believe John is talking about.  The Pharisees and Sadducees are confronting John out of fear and worry and judgment.  They show no signs of being set right with God, of the joy that comes with repentance.  And so, John is simply asking them the reasonable question, “you who say you are people of God, why aren’t you happy?  Where are the signs that you’ve been set free?”

Leaders who can’t speak about their failures have two real problems.  The first is that they will die (spiritually speaking).  If you can’t be wrong, you can’t change, and the places where your heart has become cold will stay cold, will grow, and take over your whole life.  Like a cancer, lack of repentance spreads throughout the whole body (Galatians 5:9).  In the end, it will consume us.  Not making this up (Hebrews 6:8).Spiritual Leader - Repent

And the other real problem, much more serious to my mind, is that you aren’t taking any leadership to show other people how to repent.  You bind things on their backs that you yourself are unable to carry and don’t life a finger to help them either (Matthew 23:4).  Spiritually speaking, no bueno (Matthew 23:13–39).  If we are leaders, we need to go first.  If there’s a hardship, we need to suffer it first (Mark 14:27).  If there’s a persecution, we need to face it first (John 15:18).  And if there’s some repenting to do, we need to do it first (Matthew 7:3–5).  I hate to use this language, but…  if you have no shame, no ability to repent and return to God… kinda shame on you.  I mean that as an encouragement!  Be shamed.  Feel the breakage that your life has suffered because of your pride.  And take that break to the healer of your soul (Matthew 11:29 again).  Then you, too, can be made whole (awesome) and help other people learn how to be made whole (more awesome!)

Leaders who don’t repent—regularly—aren’t leaders, they’re magazine covers. 

4.       Worship God

So, like I say, you’ve come to discover the love of God (or rediscover it), and your heart has turned back to God (you’re listening or listening again) and you’ve begun to work on the areas of your life that weren’t so lovey/listeny again (repentance) and that work is having it’s anticipated effect.  What once was dead has been made alive again (Luke 15:24).  What is the natural product of that?  Worship.  Thankfulness.  Feeling free and whole and joyful.

I think sometimes we feel like we need to conjure worship, almost like we’re actors and we have some role on the stage, and we’re trying to help our audience emote through us; but all the time we’re thinking about that amazing Cuban sandwich we’re gonna have when the curtain falls. Worship that is authentic is as natural as a “thank you.”  And, of course, there are many things to be thankful for—everything, really.  But most of us tend to be most thankful for the things that were most precarious.  Our child returns home safe after an accident, we return to work after a near layoff, we go on a romantic getaway with our spouse after a bad few months.  Worship is never more natural than when we’ve fixed the problems that had been choking the life out of us.  I wonder if it isn’t that many of us struggle to worship partly because we struggle to repent and to do the hard work of fixing and “fruiting.”  We’re still choking.

Regardless, can you see how these leadership qualities relate?  The are progressive—beginning in the love of God (the foundation of everything), moving through hearing God (growing in that relationship), and repenting to God (fixing what was broken), into worship (giving thanks for what he’s done).  This is, to be sure, how any person grows in the Lord.  But it is especially how a leader grows, because a leader needs to lead others into the love of the Lord, hearing from him (he is their leader, right?), repenting of their own sins, sharing their own thanks.  Most of us have gone through these growth processes largely unaware of what was happening.Worship for Spiritual Leader

But a leader is not free to do that.  We need to be intentional about leading people into, say, repentance.  We can’t stand outside and ask them to go down a road we aren’t willing to traverse ourselves.  Or worship.  We can’t help people get excited about the God who set them free if we aren’t free.  I feel almost pedantic in saying this, but there’s such a lack of clarity on this point:  there’s a procedural element to spiritual growth, and it is in that process that we are leading them if we are, in any sense, “spiritual leaders.”  We have to know the process, and to have gone through the process (and to be going through it again), if we ever hope to lead anyone else.  Otherwise, our “leadership” is just about our own egos, and not at all about building the kingdom of God.  Again, that may be leadership, but it is in no way “spiritual.”

5.       Study God

At some point, this growth in our relationship with God will prompt us to want to know him better.  It’s almost like dating.  Once you’ve figured out you like each other, you just want to know everything about the other person, right?  Where’d you go to school?  What did you study?  Where are your parents from?  Did you have a dog growing up?  We pepper each other with questions because we’ve kinda decided that we’re all in.  Once you’re at the point of true, heart-felt worship, you’re all in.  That’s sort of why worship feels like it does (though it doesn’t have to “feel” any particular way).  It’s the point in the relationship where you’re jumping in with both feet.  Actually, most contemporary worship songs use that language of full commitment, whole heart, jumping in the deep end, falling in love, etc.  They are people who have gotten that far—and are worshipping with others who have gotten as far—as being thankful to God.  What now?

Here enters Scripture.

It’s exciting!  Because there is a whole bank of knowledge about who God is, what his relationship to us is, why we are the way we are, what God is doing about—the whole story gets laid out between Genesis and Revelation.  I can’t tell you what a revelation this was to me in my youth.  My period of worship was my college years.  I was a member of InterVarsity, and I remember just belting out glad songs to God and being caught up in the emotion of having a real relationship with him.

But, for some reason, I really hadn’t yet approached his word for that.  What I mean is that I still saw the Bible as a rule book.  You read it to learn what to do and not to do.  And then, one day, I had the strangest experience.  I was on an archaeological dig in Israel (aMAZING!  Can recommend!) and one of my friends was doing a one-on-one Bible study with one of the leaders (this is very unusual—don’t go expecting that).  He came to the jobsite one day and told me that they had been working through a passage that was all about how love was the most important thing.  Love was the best.  I can still remember what I said to him.

“That doesn’t sound like that’s in the Bible.”

I was, I think, twenty by then, and I still didn’t know God.  I mean, I knew him, but there was so much I didn’t know about him.  I didn’t know his word. I didn’t know for instance what passage my friend and our leader had just been studying, which I’m sure you do know:  1 Corinthians 13, the “love chapter.”   I was so blown away by my own ignorance of God’s word that I memorized that whole chapter on the flight home (“Now, let me show you the most excellent way…”).

The most excellent way to get to know God is his word.  That is my testimony.  I was alive in Christ before that day, but I did not really know him.  And I couldn’t do much to help myself—much less anybody else—until I came face-to-face with the love and character of God in his Word.

Now, some people would put “studying God” much higher in the list.  Some might even put it first.  You have to know God to believe in him, right?  To love him?  And yet, that wasn’t me.  That wasn’t my experience.  I grew up Christian.  I “prayed the prayer” when I was four years old.  But, it wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I had the ability to step off on my own and form my own theology of who God was, and who I was, and what that meant for my life.  I’m not saying don’t give a new believer a Bible.  Do that!  Absolutely.  I do!  What I’m saying is that it’s going to take a while before they can read it and find God there.  That’s a maturity issue.  A growth issue.

And so, of course, that makes it a leadership issue.

There is a time for “milk, not solid food” (Hebrews 5:12).  There is a time for offering teaching that is easy (1 Peter 2:2–3).  When somebody first comes to meet the living Christ, they are stepping way out in faith.  Their spiritual muscles (so to speak) are still just forming, and the danger is that they’d fall over and hurt themselves.  A true spiritual leader will help someone navigate that fraught period of transition from simply receiving the good (being led in study, being led in prayer, being led in worship, etc.) to actively going out to get it.

How that affects you, the spiritual leader, is in 3 ways:

  •  For a time, you’re going to have to chew for them.  This is the critical, cradle time.  Don’t drop the kid on his head. A lot of damage can be done—and will have to be un-done—if you don’t navigate this nursing period well.  And that is the language the Bible uses of people who don’t understand Scripture.  They are, spiritually speaking, young (1 Corinthians 3:1–2).  They can’t chew for themselves.  They can’t discern for themselves.  And so, we *gulp* have to sustain them on the word of God.  Do me a favor and major in the majors:  John 3:16 and Matthew 28:18-20 and the Sermon on the Mount and the crucifixion, Acts 2 and the Romans road and the Love Chapter and the Fruit of the Spirit.  You don’t feed a kid squid.  It’s icky and they’ll never trust you to feed them again.  Give them the staples.  The essentials.  The things they need to flourish.  They can wrestle through Ezekiel when they’re older.
  • Be expository.  When you’re teaching them, draw things out of Scripture as if Scripture had an authority that you don’t (because it does).  Using our lives as examples is fine, but always make it clear that the word of God is the useful and authoritative tool for discovering God (2 Timothy 3:16–17).  Again, this causes people to learn to follow God and not us.
  • Let them see you be expository.  What I mean by that is that we should be demonstrating a good process for discovering God in his word, so that they can learn that process.  Our work should be devotional (oriented toward a love of God), formational (formative of our thought and attitudes), and submissional (committed to performing the tasks found there).  Most people will never take a seminary class in interpretation.  They will learn—if they ever do learn—to exegete from you.  Be a good, and obvious, and transparent model for “rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).

6.       Obey God

This is a point where many people might jump off our leadership-qualification train.  Faith over works, right?  We’re not saved by them, so why rehash a battle you lost in the late middle ages?

When Paul was railing against “works,” it was because of where it was being placed in the ordo salutis—the “order of salvation.”  Some false brothers were saying that a person had to be this or that kindof person, with this or that kindof behavior or this or that kind of background, in order to be saved (Galatians 2:4).  No.  Nope.  They don’t.  Salvation comes by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8), and faith alone (Romans 1:17).  And I don’t want to just agree with this but to champion it, and give God glory and honor for it.  Otherwise, surely I never would have had a chance.  I never could have been good enough to earn God’s love.  And, let’s be honest, if I did have to be good enough, could it even be called “love”?  Love is supposed to be unconditional (Romans 5:8).

No, this is what I’ve been saying all along!  I came to know the love of God before any good thing I had done.  I agree with Romans 3:9–20 that there is nothing good in me except what God brings.  It is because of this, and not in spite of it, that I celebrate it’s logical corollary:  faith can’t be the end goal.  It’s the start.  It’s the start of my listening to God, my being able to hear him, to be formed in him.  In Peter’s “ladder of virtues,” that’s why “faith” comes first (2 Peter 1:5–7).  It was my faith response to the gospel of God’s love for me that brought me to life.  If it’s done its work, I now have a new life.  And that newness of life is lived differently.  It has been “transformed,” as Paul would say (Romans 12:2).  And now it doesn’t look like it did before.  To paraphrase, I used to have the stench of death, but now I am the aroma of Christ (2 Corinthians 2:14–16).  I used to fight with God and reject God, but now I can follow him (Romans 8:7–9).

In the book of Ephesians, Paul is trying to get people to live with one another in a more helpful, loving way.  He does this by 1) explaining the gospel, and then 2) explaining how a new way of life is available because of that gospel.  And that new life—and the new behaviors and new abilities and new obedience that comes with it—is the reason for which God created us (Ephesians 2:10).  He want’s our help!  There’s a world full out there of people who are moving away from God, seeking their own kingdoms and their own kings, and they’re destroying themselves.  But God has a plan!

And the head-smacking, jaw-dropping revelation is that he is seeking our help in carrying out his plan.  He prepared, in advance, “good works” for us to do.  God coming into loving relationship with you is a fine end to the story if you’re the only one in the story.  And, I think sometimes many of us believe that we are the only ones Christ died for.  Not so.  He loves all the world, “and is not willing for any of them to be lost,” (Matthew 18:14).  That means that, once saved, once in the loving relationship, this is another stage to our growth and development.


I’m going to talk about this more in the last section because there’s a very specific way in which God usually asks us to act—in missionary service—but the general inclination of a fully-formed disciple of Jesus Christ is to love him by keeping his commands (John 14:15).  It’s the natural endpoint ofSpiritual Leader - Obey a life lived centered on God.  If we truly love him, if we truly listen to and value him, we are going to start sharing some of his same concerns.  And so, we’re going to see this broken world and ask it to stop hurting itself.  We just are.  We want peace in the family.  We want wholeness and shalom.  We want his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10).

And that begins with us. 

God blessed you to be a blessing (Genesis 12:1–3).  Do the people who “follow” you believe that?  Are they reaching out to the people around them?  Do they naturally feel a sympathetic twinge every time someone moves away from God (2 Corinthians 11:28–29)?  Because a leader does.  This blog isn’t about how you sway minds, it’s about how our minds are swayed by the relentless love of God.  The people you are leading spiritually only show the “fruit” of Christ’s real, authentic leadership when they care about what he cares about and does what he asks.

7.       Serve God

And what does he ask?  “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” Jesus said (Matthew 28:18).  You know by that language that he’s about to make a pretty big ask.  “I have just died and been raised again, and by the authority of the one who raised me…” we are asked to bring people into the family of God.  I love it!  I love, love, love it!!  Like, he could’ve asked for anything at that point.  “I was crucified and buried—buy me a house!”  Haha, I guarantee  you, Jesus would’ve had a mighty fine house.  “I was raised again—vote for me in the next election.”  How could you not??

Spiritual Leader - ServeNo, “baptize them.”  Baptism was an early Christian symbol of a lot of things:  cleansing, repentance, new life, and much more.  But what it did was to introduce a person into the family of God.  It was an induction ceremony, if you will (Acts 10:47):  the way the early church welcomed new-comers into relationship with “the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19), and with the church as well (Acts 2:38–41).  Serving God in ministry begins with helping people understand and receive the gospel:  that God loves us, that Christ died for us, that the Holy Spirit is available to us.  When they receive that, when they believe that, they become children of God (John 1:13).  That’s the beginning point in the process for them.

But it’s the endpoint in the process for you, leader.  Jesus had just died, and he had one last command to give, one last thing to say, one last hopeful piece of advice:  serve me by bringing them in.  What’s interesting is that Jesus then asks us to repeat the spiritual-growth process in them that he had just achieved in the lives of his own disciples:  “teach them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20).  Jesus is thinking about process, the process by which we become disciples and are made into leaders in the church and in the world.  That process starts with love, being made part of the family of God.  It ends with “obedience.”

Do you see?  I’m not making this up.  The Bible really does have a process for the growth of spiritual leaders.  He really does have qualifications for leaders—characteristics without which it would be impossible to lead people heavenward (Philippians 3:14–16).  Those characteristics are loving God, listening to God, repenting to God, worshipping God, studying God, obeying God, and serving God.  I did not make them up.  They are there in the text.

What’s more, they aren’t there alongside other things.  When Jesus sent them out on the Great Commission, he didn’t say, “go out to all the world and use persuasive speech to get them to comply.”  You really don’t get many recommendations on how to dress (except modestly; 1 Timothy 2:9) or how to speak (except simply; 1 Corinthians 2:4) or how to carry yourself (except humbly; Ephesians 4:2).  We aren’t taught to be loud or forceful, braggadocious or boastful.  Really, the opposite.


There are no qualifications for Christian leadership other than these.  You can put them in different ways, sure.  You can turn them into four steps or fourteen (provided you cover the same material).  You can, like the Great Commission or the Greatest Commandment, give laser focus to the start and end.  But it’s never going to be what you want it to be if what you want it to be is how do I gain control over people.  That isn’t what God wants for you.  Think about it—that isn’t what you want either.

There’s a day coming when no one will have to turn to his brother or sister and say, “know the Lord,” because we’re all going to know him, from the least of us to the greatest (Hebrews 8:11).  We won’t be in danger from each other, in thrall to one another.  No one can control us anymore.  “It was for freedom that Christ set you free,” Paul says (Galatians 5:1).  And what he was talking about, famously, were the people who had come to Galatia to preach an anti-gospel.  They were teachers.  They were spiritual leaders who were only teaching “Godless myths and old wives’ tales” (1 Timothy 4:7).  Paul’s opponents were nearly always teachers, because it’s so easy for the role of teacher or leader to revert to controller.  And that’s what these people wanted (2 Timothy 3:6).

That’s not us. 

That is not us.  I assume you’re reading this because you want to learn to be a better leader.  That’s awesome!  And I want to support you and love you through that, whether it’s a struggle in your family, or a difficult co-worker, or a church team that’s talking behind your back.  Those things do take leadership skills, and how are you supposed to deal with them in a way that honors God and doesn’t make things worse?

Well, it isn’t going to be by people thinking your great.   I’m sorry.  I’m sure you are great!  But I would never help someone fix a problem by creating a bigger problem, and you taking control over people’s lives and desires and thoughts… yeah, that’s worse.  That’s way worse.

Be humble.  Be gentle.  God was with you.  Love him.  Love them.  Grow in that love until you learn how God is speaking to them.  And then start to share that.  Give them words.  To quote Bonhoeffer, “Christians need other Christians who speak God’s Word to them.”[9]  Lead them in celebration and in discovering God’s will and in obedience to it.  And then use that credibility to fix what’s broken.  That is your mission.  That is the mission of the spiritual leader.

Lead from love.  Everything else is manipulation.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2023/06/02/us/catholic-church-sex-abuse-investigations.html
[2] https://newrepublic.com/article/165088/church-financial-crime-tax-exempt
[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/18/us/harold-camping-radio-entrepreneur-who-predicted-worlds-end-dies-at-92.html
[4] https://baptistnews.com/article/more-baptist-leaders-cite-pattern-of-bullying-from-ezell-and-namb/
[5] https://www.jta.org/2023/09/08/global/portos-jewish-community-unveils-memorial-to-842-local-victims-of-portuguese-inquisition
[6] https://www.thecollector.com/how-did-the-crusades-affect-christianity/
[7] https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0075520/
[8] https://search.worldcat.org/title/7173128
[9] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works—Reader’s Edition (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 6.

Dr. Cliff Winters is Director of the Spiritual Formation concentration in the Master of Theology program at the School of Graduate Studies at Barclay College. He received his doctorate in New Testament from Asbury Theological Seminary. He pastored for 20 years and is presently Teaching Pastor at New England Chapel in Franklin, MA. Dr. Winters likes to help students navigate “vagaries of the spiritual life. I love transformation,” he says. “I love to see life-setting lights come on.” And yes, if you watched the movie, We Are Mashall, with Matthew McConaughey and Matthew Fox, you might spot him as an extra.

For more information on the Barclay College School of Graduate Studies, contact graduatestudies@barclaycollege.edu.

Barclay College, in Haviland, KS, provides on-campus and online undergrad programs, and a Master of Arts in Theology online with eight ministry concentrations. Barclay emphasizes a biblical foundation for evangelical faith traditions and offers Full Tuition Scholarships to dorm residents.

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