When you ask Jesus to lead the meeting you’re in and remain submitted and attentive to his Spirit he transforms the community and the outcomes of the meeting. It’s the key to ministry Leadership.
“We don’t Have Time to Pray”
In 30 years of Christian ministry for a variety of organizations I’ve been in a lot of meetings. Staff meetings. Pastoral staff meetings. Ministry event meetings. Board meetings. Elder meetings. More than I’d like to admit I’ve groaned, “Not another meeting!” If you’re a ministry leader then probably you have felt the same way.
We gather what we hope to be smart, gifted, hard-working people in a room and we meet for an hour or two or a whole day. We share vision. We talk about the work we’re each doing for God. We set priorities and goals. We manage people and projects. We solve problems. We plan programs and events. We debrief programs and events.
And maybe we remember to pray at the end in order to ask God to bless what we’re doing!
Sometimes it’s a little better than this and somebody begins the meeting with a short prayer or devotional from the Bible. This can set a Christ-centered tone for a meeting. But how easily we separate the business part of the meeting from the prayer part. After we say “Amen” we may forget to keep listening to the Holy Spirit when we discuss issues; we may neglect to rely on God’s wisdom and grace as we strategize. Even worse, on a number of occasions in a church meeting I’ve even heard someone say, “We have to get right down to business today so we don’t have time to pray.”
We don’t have time to pray!
Think about what we’re saying when we say we don’t have time to pray. “We’re too busy to talk to God during this meeting.” (Maybe we also we’re too busy to pray before the meeting.) But what could be more important than to include Christ in a meeting, to listen for his wisdom and to rely on his love and power?
I’m sad to say that I’ve learned from many of the pastors and leaders that I talk to that this scenario is common today in staff and board meetings for our churches and Christian organizations. We have been conditioned by our culture to operate in human, not divine, initiative. We seek to “make things happen” rather than submitting to and depending on the risen Christ who is with us. I know the tendency to get caught up in our culture’s way of leading. I myself have led hundreds of meetings with a make it happen mindset – until I decided to ask Jesus to lead the meetings I was responsible for.
I Asked Jesus to Lead the Meeting
Then it occurred to me that Jesus was the Best Leader for meetings and I could become his assistant. I had done this with other areas of my life – why not with my leadership of organizational meetings? Why was I separating work from spirituality? Why didn’t I understand prayer as accomplishing things and accomplishing things as prayer? In a Christian school. In a Christian clinic. Even in a church! I have led many un-prayerful meetings.
When I had my spiritual renewal in 2002 I became intentional about learning to live each aspect of my life as an apprentice to Jesus, doing what I do with Jesus so that I can succeed in doing it for him. Of course, the first thing to change was devoting more of my free time to Intimacy with Jesus through prayer. But along the way I started learning to follow Jesus’ lead in how I conducted myself all the time – when I sat down for dinner with my family, talked with a friend, saw a homeless person, counseled therapy clients, taught students, led retreats, and even when I drove my car!
Doing whatever I do in the way that Jesus himself did things – submitted to God, unhurried, depending on grace, listening to the Spirit, loving those near me – has become very important to me. And it has led me to turn over the leadership of meetings to Christ-in-my-midst. Inspired, first from my spiritual father Ray Ortlund and then by the example of my friends and colleagues at The Leadership Institute (where Kristi and I completed a two-year training program in spiritual leadership), I started asking Jesus to lead my meetings. I was surprised what a positive difference this made!
- We grew closer to Christ and to one another
- It took the pressure off of me and others to make things happen
- Team members became more participatory in the process
- We were better able to see what God was doing in our community and ministry and to join his work
- We saw God generate ideas and eventual outcomes that weren’t on anyone’s mind going into the meeting!
- We actually looked forward to our meetings!
Jesus Explains his Way
Jesus Christ is our Master in all things. He is the perfect Spiritual Leader. His ministry and leadership of others came out of his personal intimacy with the Father. This was Jesus’ Rhythm of Life. He was in submission to the Father always. All that Jesus did – his wisdom, compassionate ministry, strength, and miracles – was his participation in what he saw the Father doing (John 5:19, 6:38, 12:50).
The way Jesus lived is the way he taught us to live: “Remain in my love just as I remain in the Father’s love, obey what I tell you to do just as I obey the Father” (John 15:10, my paraphrase). Jesus explained that just as a branch bears fruit by remaining (or abiding) in a vine so we bear fruit by remaining connected to him.
So when you or I lead a meeting or whatever we’re doing it’s important that we do so as apprentices to Jesus, connecting to him in the moment and following his lead. Jesus’ invitation to us has profound implications for how we function in ministry and leadership situations:
Come to me… Walk with me and work with me — watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly… Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat—I am… Steep yourself in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Don’t be afraid of missing out. You’re my dearest friends! The Father wants to give you the very kingdom itself (Matthew 11:28-30, Luke 9:23, 12:29. MSG).
The Apostles’ Example
Acts has been called the fifth Gospel because it tells the story of the Apostles carrying on the ministry of Jesus and shows how the church grew like wildfire. What made their ministry so successful? How did the kingdom of God grow through them?
They relied on the risen Christ being present to them and speaking to them in the person of the Holy Spirit.
A key verse that shows the Apostles learning to depend on the leading of the Holy Spirit is Acts 1:2 which indicates that during the 40 days between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension he gave instructions to his disciples in two ways: by physically manifesting himself to them to talk with them (as he had done in the three years of his public ministry) and “giving them instructions through the Holy Spirit.” Jesus taught his disciples how to listen to his still, small voice, communicated through thoughts and impressions given by the Holy Spirit.
Continually, throughout the book of Acts we see the Apostles waiting for, listening to, being led by, and depending on the power of the risen Christ, invisible to them, but actually present with them through the Holy Spirit. Over 50 times we read examples of the Apostles relying not on their own intelligence, abilities, or energies, but on the Spirit. They acted “through the Holy Spirit” and “by the Spirit.”
Being led by the Spirit of Christ affected the way the Apostles met together, not only for their worship services, but also for making decisions and discussing problems. As part of what today we might call “business” meetings they worshiped, fasted, meditated on Scripture, prayed, quietly listened to God, shared their hearts, prayed for one another, including with the ministry of the laying on of hands, and were compelled by the Spirit to speak and act (e.g., Acts 1:24-26, 4:23-31, 13:1-3, 15:12-18, 16:6-10, 20:36).
We Ask Jesus to Lead Soul Shepherding Board Meetings
In our semi-monthly Soul Shepherding Board Meetings we seek to rely on the Spirit of Christ in our midst. We view our organizational meetings as a time for spiritual formation community and discerning together how God is leading our ministry.
Christ-centered leadership is very important to us so we begin each board meeting by asking Jesus to lead the meeting. (As the President of Soul Shepherding I ask Jesus to be the President and I focus on assisting him with the help of the Board.) Sometimes we even leave an open chair to symbolically remind us that Jesus is present to preside over our meeting.
What does it look like when I ask Jesus to lead the meeting? For starters, as a group we ask Jesus to lead the meeting. In fact, for the first one-third to one-half of our two-hour long Board meetings we Abide in Prayer as a community, praying Scripture together in a variety of ways. As we meditate on God’s Word we are quiet to listen to God and then we share our hearts and pray for one another. Then it is from within this Christ-centered community context that we discuss the ministry business at hand, doing our best to discern God’s wisdom for our vision, goals, action steps, and problem-solving. And then we pray over these decisions and for the needs of our ministry.
We Don’t Have an “Agenda”
Putting priority on helping one another to attend to the risen Christ with us means holding our agenda loosely. In fact, I never even use the word “agenda.” Of course, we have important points to discuss and decisions to make! And it’s very important to Kristi and I to be able to address these issues while we have the wisdom, gifts, and energies of our board members all together in one room! But we submit our plan to the Lord. To remind us of who is in charge of our board meeting we replace the idea of an “agenda” with discernment points. Our objective in the whole meeting is to worship God and listen to him.
Asking Jesus to lead the meeting means that we accept that we may not get to cover all of the issues in a particular meeting. God may surface other issues or we may need extra time on an important point. Or someone may have a personal need for prayer that we give more time to. Any undone business items can be dealt with by phone or e-mail after the meeting or held over to the next meeting.
Our process of quietly listening to God in our board meeting slows us down – and we have learned to appreciate this. We resist hurry. We resist trying to make things happen. We resist trying to do too much! Being with Christ together and listening for the next step that he leads us to take is our priority. On the surface it may appear to an outsider that we are not accomplishing as much as we could. But a deeper look into our community and the fruit of abiding in Christ in our lives and in the ministry of Soul Shepherding over time shows that actually, by God’s grace and wisdom, we are accomplishing more for the Kingdom of God. For instance, God gives us ideas and opportunities out of nowhere that we never could’ve come up with if I was driving my agenda.
Why are we so careful about our process of making decisions and leading our ministry? To keep submitting ourselves to God and praying to him about the ministry of Soul Shepherding. I like to say in our Board meetings, “If this is all we accomplished today it’d be a great board meeting!” To rely on the Spirit of Christ and not merely our own abilities means everything to our ministry. The counsel the Bible is clear: God says to us repeatedly that to accomplish things is, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit” (Zechariah 4:6). It’s by interacting with and relying upon the Holy Spirit in whatever we’re doing that we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).
The same focus on abiding in Christ as a community to be led and empowered by God that we use in our Soul Shepherding Board Meetings is what we use when we work with staff or lay teams from churches and other Christian organizations. Our experience is that it is possible to make progress with learning to integrate spirituality and business in organizational meetings. Staff Teams, Elder Boards, and Boards of Directors can do this. It’s called spiritual leadership and it’s a matter of practicing Jesus’ John 15 way of abide together in Trinitarian community to bear fruit – glorifying God by loving him, one another, and those in need. Kristi and I don’t do this perfectly! But we’re finding it fun as we learn to follow Jesus in his kingdom adventures!
Brainstorming in the Spirit
Typically, as leaders we use brainstorming sessions with our teams to develop strategic plans, prepare for an important events, or solve problems. Everybody around the table shares their ideas of what they think is best. Then the ideas are discussed and decisions are made. This is not a bad approach, as God can certainly speak through the wisdom of men and women – remember that in the Bible he once spoke through a jackass! (Numbers 22:28)
But my experience is that God is not normally central in brainstorming sessions, even when everyone present is a Christian. This is because in our meetings we tend to use a cultural process, rather than a Biblical, Spirit-inspired process. But Jesus Christ is the Smartest Person that ever lived! He is the best consultant on any issue and he is the room with us! Why don’t we ask him what he thinks? I am sure he has some great ideas!
A Holy Spirit led planning meeting is very different than brainstorming. We might call this Spirit-storming! or contemplative planning. When I lead these sessions we not only begin in prayer, but we go back to prayer as part of the process. We integrate talking and praying, listening to one another and listening to God. And because God usually speaks in gentle whispers and subtle impressions we spend some time being quiet before him to get ourselves into a position in which we might be able to hear God’s voice (1 Kings 19:9-15). God’s wisdom to the Psalmist and to us is: “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).
Along these lines, I have found it very helpful to the discernment process when we can step away from discussion with one another and spend at least five minutes quietly listening to God. If possible, it’s best to devote thirty or even sixty minutes for people to leave the table and find a place for quiet solitude to listen to God and write down what they sense God might be saying (you have to set aside your internal editor for the period of listening prayer). Then when everyone comes back to the table we hear the ideas that God has given them and we discuss how God is leading us to proceed.
The ideal setting for a team to discern what God is saying is to get away from the normal place of work or ministry and go to a retreat center, church (not your church if its your work setting!), or a hotel where you can find a quiet room to meet and an adjacent garden, outdoor patio, or other large peaceful area. Whatever the setting, it helps if people clear their calendars, turn off their cell phones, and stay off their computers!
What meetings do you help to lead in your home, work, or church? What could you do to help make this meeting more Christ-centered? Your opportunity is to pray about that for your particular context for leadership and then venture out with God, experimenting as the Holy Spirit leads you and your team.
Perhaps your setting is not Christian or there are important leaders who at this point would be opposed to corporate meditation on Scripture or listening prayer. But even in that case there are things that you can do to make a difference like praying before the meeting, submitting your “agenda” to God, really listening to people and listening to God at the same time, and praying secretly for people and issues during the meeting.
If you’re in a Christian family, business, ministry, or church then you probably have room to talk to your group about trying some new ways for looking to Jesus to lead your meetings. Taking a step in this direction may be easier than you think.
- Do as I have done and begin the meeting in an earnest prayer in which you help everyone to appreciate that the risen Christ is present in the room and you ask him to lead the meeting.
- Begin the meeting with a short devotional and then ask everyone to respond briefly to a question like, “How is God working in your life in this area?”
- In the middle of brainstorming or planning suggest taking a five-minute break and ask everyone to keep silence to listen to what God might be saying to them.
- Instead of pushing for decisions pray first. On important decisions postpone a decision until everyone has had time to pray about the issue and then come back with what they sense to be God’s wisdom.
What you want to grow toward is becoming the kind of person who is naturally aware of, listening to, and relying upon the Spirit of Christ in your dreaming, decision-making processes, and in all that you do!