Spiritual Leadership and Gardening

If you are a spiritual leader in any milieu—or if you ever plan to be—you should learn to garden. Spiritual leadership and gardening both require the same mindset, the same skills, the same posture, and the same dedication.

This winter was so long. We had snow in the middle of April, for goodness sake! Since the weather broke, warm sunshine began peering through the clouds, and the world began to spring to life a few weeks ago, my family and I have been outside as much as possible. One of the things we most look forward to is the annual planting of the vegetable garden. I can already taste the tomato salsa we’ll make as well as the fresh strawberry shakes and fried zucchini. (Who says fruit and veggies have to be healthy!)

Last weekend, as I was putting the final touches on the new garden box, breaking up the soil snow-compacted soil, and yanking up a few bothersome weeds so Kelly could move in and begin working her magic in the garden, I had a thought:

Spiritual leadership and gardening are twin disciplines.

Life is a great teacher. In 17 years of ministry experience, I’ve learned a lot about what to do and, of course, what not to do. I’ve also learned so many lessons as a husband and a father, as a friend, and as a Christian wrestling to make sense of the world around me. Kneeling in front of the garden last weekend, I realized there are so many similarities between spiritual leadership (the overarching theme and goal of all those relationships) and gardening. They both require a similar mindset, skills, and posture.

The mindset of spiritual leadership and gardening

Our son wanted to plant carrots. A few minutes after we got them in the ground and watered them, he asked when they’d be ready. He was expecting it to be a matter of minutes, not months.

Gardens don’t grow overnight. They require that the gardener possess a long-term mindset. Someone who is planting a garden simply has to be patient. They plant in the spring and can only begin to harvest a few months later. And planting and waiting won’t work. A gardener must also demonstrate a great amount of dedication while he or she waits for the garden to produce. Growing a garden is a commitment. Day after day, week after week, and month after month, the gardener must continue to return to the garden to tend it. Patience and dedication are also required character traits of spiritual leaders. Like gardens, people don’t bloom overnight. They take weeks and months of dedicated, patient care.

The spiritual leader, like the gardener, must have the right mindset if they desire to see results. But, that’s not all. they must also possess the right skills.

The skills of spiritual leadership and gardening

I mentioned earlier that I do the heavy work. My wife has a green thumb, the one with the skills to keep the conditions right so the garden can reach its full potential. Spiritual leadership, like gardening, requires great skill.

A gardener expends a lot of energy cultivating, getting the soil just right. They work the soil so it is perfectly hospitable, conducive to the development of young seedlings. Additionally, and seemingly without end, they protect their plants and soil by pulling greedy invaders from the environment. It’s amazing how much weeding both gardening and spiritual leadership require. The gardener or spiritual leader who refuses to pick weeds puts his or her plants at risk. Finally, in addition to cultivation and weeding, a gardener must feed and water the plants. Without food and water, especially during the hottest parts of the summer, tender plants will be stunted, they’ll wither, and they may even die.

The spiritual leader must possess the skills of cultivating healthy environments, mitigating the effect of dangerous situations or malicious people, and to providing the nourishment required for sustained growth. Finally, gardening and spiritual leadership require the correct posture.

The posture of spiritual leadership and gardening

Every gardener understands that something supernatural happens when you plant a garden. And, they know that the outcome is really out of their hands. While they use all of their skills to give each plant the greatest chance of health and fruit, the growth of a seed into a fruit-bearing plant is the work of God. Therefore, spiritual leadership, like gardening, requires the proper posture.

My wife and I garden almost exclusively on our knees. And I don’t think that’s a coincidence. The proper posture of a spiritual leader, like the gardener, is a humble posture of faith and prayer. Spiritual leadership is ultimately—as the name implies—the work of the Spirit. He is the one who produces the increase. Placing a seed in the ground or planting a seed in a human heart is, therefore, an act of faith. The one who plants believes in what he or she hopes for and is certain of what he or she does not see (Hebrews 11:1). And, if planting is an act of faith, it stands to reason that gardeners and spiritual leaders must dedicate themselves to prayer.

In addition to the proper mindset, skills, and posture, there’s one more thing to say about spiritual leadership and gardening. The one who cultivates, plants, waters, weeds, and prays gets to enjoy the fruit of the harvest.

The fruit of spiritual leadership and gardening

I’m so excited for fresh tomatoes. I can’t wait to walk around the corner of the house and smell the fresh basil. We’re going to have some fantastic salads. And, have I mentioned that I make killer salsa? I can taste it already.

The elderly Apostle John summed it up when he remarked that nothing brought him more joy than the knowledge that his children were walking in the truth (3 John 4). In other words, it thrilled him to know that the Spirit caused the seeds he had planted and watered, in the ground he had cultivated, to grow and to bear fruit.

The joy and fulfillment for the gardener is very similar to the experience of watching someone you’ve led bear fruit. It’s the joy of the harvest that keeps the gardener focused. Spiritual leaders, keep working. Keep pulling weeds. Keep watering and feeding. Your work is not in vain. As you continue praying, hoping, and trusting God to bring a harvest, you will be encouraged to know that your hard work is not in vain.

If you are a spiritual leader—or if you ever plan to be—you should put in a garden this spring. There’s still time. Becoming a gardener will make you a better leader.

Diminishing the Clergy-Laity Divide

“Do you plan on being ordained before your first ministry begins next month?” As an idealistic, young seminary graduate, I had given this topic a lot of thought. I was unsure. I was—and am still—all about diminishing the clergy-laity divide.

Frankly, I was leaning away from ordination for three reasons:

Entitlement

I was turned off by several ministers and professors who held themselves in high esteem because they were ordained ministers. To me, it seemed as if they used their ordinations as all-access passes that entitled them to better treatment than others.

Bitterness

I was equally repelled by a handful of ministers and professors who viewed their ordinations as martyrs’ crosses, burdens to be borne. Rather than observing gladness, willingness, and gratitude in them, I saw obligation, sourness, and hesitation.

Other Believers

I had met too many Christian women and men who viewed themselves as second-class because they weren’t ordained. These people were supremely gifted, called by God, deeply involved at the church, and engaged in Christ’s mission at home and at work seven days a week. Yet, many of them felt as if their ministries at home, at work, and in the community were less important than that of their pastors. How tragic!

If I were to be ordained, would I fall into the entitlement trap? Would I be embittered by my calling? And, most sobering to me, what would my ordination communicate to the Christian men and women I respected so much?

In the church, there’s a wide gap between clergy and laity. And, that simply shouldn’t be. An elevated clergy limits the potential influence of the church. It reinforces a consumer mentality we need so badly to eliminate. And, tragically, a diminished laity sends the message that vocational ministers are more holy and useful in the kingdom than those who don’t share the same calling.

So, how do we diminish the clergy-laity divide? Here are three tips. (And, by the way, it’s up to us, fellow ministers, to make sure this happens.)

Teach the Priesthood of All Believers

We stand on firm ground when we help believers realize and live into their priestly identities in Christ. The Bible is clear on this. It has always been God’s will to make his people into a kingdom of priests, people who perform sacred duties designed to usher people into the presence of God.

If we wish to diminish the clergy-laity divide, we simply must help Christians understand that we are all priests.

Equip God’s People for Ministry

It feels good to be needed. It gives our egos a boost when people reach out to us to do ministry stuff. And, we like to be the ones who help. However, when ministers hoard the work of ministry to themselves instead of equipping God’s people to do the work of the church, we place a governor on the ministry of the church. We can’t do it all alone. Nor should we.

Ministers, it is our responsibility to equip God’s people. Not only will this diminish the clergy-laity divide, it will engage Christians in mission and help the church to be healthy, growing, and full of love.

Embody Kingdom Leadership

As nice as it is to have people call us pastor, to enjoy being ushered to the front of the line, to appreciate the view from the head of the table, and to be the one given the final say, we must remember that Kingdom leadership—as embodied by our Savior—is not top-down. Kingdom leadership is bottom-up. So, ministers, the higher you ascend and the more responsibility you are given, the more earnestly you must serve others and the more willing you should be not to be exalted but to do the dirty work.

We’ll diminish the clergy-laity divide when we begin to embody Kingdom leadership.

So, I ended up being ordained

Doesn’t that sound contradictory? I’ll admit, on the surface, it does. However, when I thought of all the wonderful Christian men and women at my home church who had poured into my family, the people who discipled me, and the sweet saints who had prayed for and molded me over the years, I decided submitting to ordination was the perfect way to serve and honor them. I got to stand before them and pledge to serve others as they had served me. I got to thank them for investing in me and to encourage them to keep it up with the next generation.

Now, 17 years later, I still regularly glance up at the signatures on the ordination certificate that hangs in my office and I picture all the former Sunday-school teachers, youth sponsors, elders, and friends who taught me, by their ministries to me, how to be a minister. I’m so glad for their ministries to me.

If you’re a Christian, you’re a minister

No matter whether you’re sitting in a church office, a bulldozer, a corporate boardroom, a classroom, a cubicle, or a barn, God has ministry prepared for you in advance. Let’s not make much of the clergy-laity divide. Let’s link arms and do ministry together.

Do You Live to Work or Work to Live?

Do you live to work or work to live? We live in a world in which people typically err on one of two extremes when it comes to the elusive work-life balance.

Some live to work

It’s not uncommon for people—whether they wear a white collar, a blue collar, no collar, or even in a pastor’s collar—to work 60, 70, or 80 hours a week. When I was in college, I worked as a courier at a law firm. Several partners and associates had couches, blankets, pillows, and spare suits in their offices because they regularly spent the night. Last week, I spoke to a medical student who easily clocks 70 hours each week and rarely gets to see her husband and child. Some are required to spend many hours at work. For the majority, obsessive work—and the success, status, wealth, and accolades it brings—is a choice.

Some work to live

We tend to think that this is the holier of the two extremes. However, sometimes it is simply an excuse for laziness or the result of a time-consuming hobby or a commitment to maintain the façade of a life of wealth and leisure. I worked at a nonprofit organization in Indy several years ago. I was amazed by how anxiously my coworkers watched the clock each afternoon, waiting for happy hour to begin, and by how much they talked about the weekend they just completed or the weekend they were planning. They didn’t want to be there. And, their attitude was reflected in their work.

I’ve reflected upon this question a lot of times: Should I live to work or work to live? I have come to believe the answer is “Yes!” We live to work and we work to live.

Three essential truths apply.

God shaped us to work and create

God formed us in his own image and placed us within an intricate system that requires our care, cultivation, and stewardship. He also placed us in a lush paradise full of inspiration and with plenty of space in which to dream, create, build, and express ourselves. God’s creation mandate charges us with the responsibility to rule over the earth as his representatives, to fill the earth, to subdue it by bringing it into order, and to make it a place in which humanity can flourish. It is a good, right, and holy thing to give oneself to honest work that provides for people, creates excellent products, and contributes to the common good. We are being faithful to God when we work well.

God shaped us to require rest

God established a rhythm for life when, after creating the heavens and the earth, he rested on the seventh day and made it holy. Did God rest because he was exhausted? Absolutely not! He possesses immeasurable, inexhaustible strength. The Creator did not require rest. But, because he knew that his creation and the creatures therein would require regular relaxation, reflection, and recreation, he set aside one day a week and commanded those who worship him to honor it. We are human beings, not machines. And, as such, we require a regular routine to remember that we depend upon God, to enjoy time with the people he has put in our lives, to enjoy the world he created for us, to re-calibrate our hearts and souls, and to worship him.

We must resist making work or leisure an idol

Our sinful bent toward idolatry—giving the honor, praise, and priority to anything that is not God—is really at the heart of this whole issue. Work is a false god. Free time is a lousy lord. Neither deserves to reside on the throne of our hearts. That place is reserved for God alone. If we’re serving either the god of work or the lord of leisure, we’ll never experience the peace, purpose, and wholeness we can only find in Christ.

So, as a stranger and alien, how do you spend your work time and free time? When you’re at work, work with all your heart as if you’re serving the Lord and not just your boss or your board (see Colossians 3:23-24). When you have free time, let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, be thankful, reflect on God’s great love, and do it all in the name of Jesus (see Colossians 3:12-17).

Christian friends, we live to work. We also work to live. And we do it all to the glory of God.

[This post originally appeared on the PCC staff blog.]

How To Be a History Maker

I want to be a history maker. I remember the first time I saw my favorite Christian band, Delirious, in concert. In that dark, crowded, suspiciously musty concert venue, I remember shouting the words of one of my favorite songs:

I’m gonna be a history maker in this land
I’m gonna be a speaker of truth to all mankind
I’m gonna stand, I’m gonna run
Into your arms, into your arms again

Delirious, History Maker

In 1999, I was a 21-year old Bible college senior ready to change the world. Those heady words swirled inside of me and took residence in my heart. I had ambitious plans. I would land an internship, join a church staff, ascend through the hierarchy, and accept the call to lead. I’d be a fearless, compassionate, and creative leader. Over time, I’d expand my influence by coaching and supporting other aspiring leaders. After a full ministry career, I’d run into God’s arms and hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” I wanted to be a history maker!

Can you relate?

No matter what calling God gave you—vocational ministry, the armed forces, education, raising children, banking, farming, retail, tech, or politics—you likely pursued it out of a deep passion and an overwhelming desire to make a difference in the world. You wanted to help, to earn responsibility, and to expand influence. You wanted to change the world.

Do you still want to be a history maker? I know I still do. There are at least four disciplines that history-making demands of us:

Become good at the little things

I discovered quickly that if I wanted to change the world, I’d have to focus on the present. Every career is made up of 1,000 un-glamorous tasks that simply must be done. I learned that if I wanted to have a chance to teach on a big stage, I’d have to get really good at planning lessons for my small group. If I wanted to help an organization increase efficiencies, I’d have to learn how to file accurate expense reports on time. If I wanted to get permission to make changes, I’d have to learn how to persuade decision makers. I had remember that this is the path to greater responsibility and impact in the Kingdom: “You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things” ([biblegateway passage=”Matthew 25:21″ display=”Matthew 25:21″]).

Faithfully executing the details gives you the experience and credibility you need to assume greater responsibility. There are no shortcuts to success. The discipline developed in getting good at the little things positions you as a person who can be entrusted with bigger things.

Sharpen your Spirit-given strengths

I had a clear picture of what I was going to accomplish but I didn’t know my own strengths and weaknesses. As I embarked upon on my plans, I experienced great friction in some areas and great traction in others. I spent a lot of time trying to become good at things that simply weren’t aligned with my gifts. I soon realized that I could either invest hours trying to bolster up weaknesses with very little return on investment or that I could lean into my strengths with huge results. Along the way, I learned that God had given me gifts of leadership, administration, and teaching. I took time to better understand my own temperament. And, wise counselors gave me permission to focus on my strengths, gifts, and calling. This made all the difference.

The Apostle Paul teaches that each of us who are in Christ have been given the powerful presence of the Spirit to accomplish the common good ([biblegateway passage=”1 Corinthians 12:7″ display=”1 Corinthians 12:7″]) and he reminded his protege Timothy to fan his gifts into flame ([biblegateway passage=”2 Timothy 1:6″ display=”2 Timothy 1:6″]). If you want to be a history maker, spend your time sharpening your Spirit-given strengths.

Invest in people

You can be charismatic and gifted, in possession of all the right resources, and you can be a wizard at strategy and structure. If you don’t invest in people, though, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Or, at the very least, you’re diminishing your potential. No matter where you work, what you do, or how talented you are, you won’t succeed if you’re not great at investing in people.

As Christians, what’s our overarching calling and purpose? It is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and to “love your neighbor as yourself ([biblegateway passage=”Matthew 22:37″ display=”Matthew 22:37″] and [biblegateway passage=”Matthew 22:39″ display=”39″]). That’s it. Whether it’s our coworkers, our constituents, our clients, our communities, or our customers, our first priority must be to love people well.

If we become history makers it will be because we invested in people and we loved them well (ultimately by bringing them to Jesus).

Keep showing up

Finally, there’s no substitute for simply showing up every day. For most of us, God willing, it will be a long race. It’s easy to become discouraged when we forget that history making takes years of sustained, persistent effort. We tend to overestimate what we can do in a week or month and underestimate what we can do in a year or two. People who make a difference in the world have learned how to push through the pain of slow progress and how to keep showing up and doing the work to which God has called them.

What about you?

Are you young and ambitious, hoping for history-making results on a shorter-than-realistic time frame? Are you trying to remain passionate in spite of slow progress or under-realized visions and dreams? Have your world-changing dreams begun to fade?

Hang in there. Keep working on mastering the little things. Continue sharpening your Spirit-given gifts. Don’t quit investing in people. And, by all means, keep showing up. God is in the business of making history and he wants to use you and me. (If you need a little extra inspiration, try this!)

The Thrill of Hope

The thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn’

This lyric comes from one of my favorite Christmas carols: “O Holy Night.” I’ve always been captivated by the curious phrase, the thrill of hope. I’ve always wondered something. What is it, exactly, that makes hope thrilling?

Thrilling isn’t usually how we think about hope:

We hear about false hope all of the time.

People use the word hopefully when they really want something to happen (but they’re pretty sure it won’t).

Some use the word hope frequently because they’re positive people who like to express a general sense of optimism.

We talk about hope as a feeling or a vaguely positive emotion one experiences from time to time.

We’re quick to point out when someone has lost hope or gives up hope.

If we’re being honest, the idea of hope being thrilling is odd. Roller coasters are thrilling. A basketball game that goes into overtime is thrilling. Bungee jumping is thrilling (I’ve heard). How can hope be thrilling?

I believe it all comes down to what or whom is the object of our hope. Hope can be thrilling as long as it is built on something that is trustworthy and sure.

Hope isn’t thrilling if it is built on my desire to see the Colts to win the Super Bowl. It’s not thrilling if I’m brimming with confidence that my favorite politician will keep all of his or her promises when he or she is in office. Hope doesn’t thrill if it depends upon seeing my lottery numbers on the screen. And, hope doesn’t thrill when I’m leaning all of my weight on a job, a hobby, or a relationship for a sense of purpose or wholeness.

Hope is thrilling, however, if it is built on something true, real, right, and good.

What is hope?

When Christians talk about hope, the thrilling kind of hope from the Christmas song, we aren’t attempting to manifest something that isn’t real. We’re not engaged in wishful thinking or conjuring up what we wish for by the power of positive thinking. We’re not being irrational, weak, or dishonest. Nor are we ignoring or making light of the obvious pain, angst, suffering, and brokenness of the world in which we live. When Christians talk about hope, we’re making a powerful statement about the truest truths, the real-est realities, and the certain-est certainties. Real hope is built upon the truth of what God has done and the absolute certitude, on that basis, that he will do what he has promised to do.

The thrill of hope

Hope is thrilling—at Christmastime and throughout the year—because the reality of that miracle-baby in the manger is the God-man on the cross, the risen and eternal Savior. We can be thrilled will hope because we know that he will return to bring us home.

I pray that your heart leaps with joy, anticipation, and excitement this Christmas, that you experience the thrill of hope about which you’ll sing.

O holy night the stars are brightly shining
It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth

A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new glorious morn
Fall on your knees
O hear the angels’ voices
O night divine
O night when Christ was born

All the Poor and Powerless

One of my favorite songs is called “All the Poor and Powerless” by All Sons and Daughters.

The opening verse states:

All the poor and powerless
And all the lost and lonely
And all the thieves will come confess
And know that You are holy
And know that You are holy

Those who end up knowing that God is good—because he rescues them—are the poor, powerless, lost, lonely thieves who recognize their need for him. But, so often, we deceive ourselves into thinking that the rich and powerful people who seem to know exactly where they’re headed and who are constantly surrounded by a merry crowd of friends are the ones who are blessed by God, the ones who know his strength, goodness, and power.

We can’t know God’s riches until we have tasted poverty, his power until we are powerless. And, we won’t be found or filled with the most faithful of friendships until we are lost and lonely.

That’s precisely why God has always had a place in his heart for people who are marginalized and oppressed. He loves people who are foreigners and aliens, outcast, shunned, destitute, and abandoned. He loves children who cannot defend themselves. He honors the weak and wounded.

As his people, are you glorying in your own strength and righteousness? Or, do you recognize your own poverty and desperate need for him? Are you tempted to recline in your righteousness, enjoying all you’ve been blessed with? Or, in your weakness, do you join God in his mission to redeem and restore others who are lost and lonely, poor and powerless?

We’ll only experience God’s holiness and goodness, his favor and provision, when we join him.

The Best Antidote to Unhealthy Theology

A few days ago, a member at my church got in touch with me about some unhealthy theology that a loved one of hers was beginning to wade into. This person had stumbled across a theologian whose teaching had raised her suspicions. She was determined to understand the teaching she was dealing with and she wanted to be able to point her loved one toward better alternatives.

She was right to be concerned.

Her loved one had stumbled across the late Clark Pinnock and some of his writings about a concept called open theism. This is the teaching that some aspects of the future remain unknown, at least with certainty, to God. While Pinnock and other open theists state that parts of the future are unknown to God, the Bible says otherwise. God is omniscient. “God fully knows himself and all things actual and possible in one simple and eternal act” (Grudem, 1994, p. 190).

  • God knows himself so when he reveals himself to us we can trust him.
  • God knows all things including the entire realm of possibilities that may result from the hundreds of choices each of us make every single day.
  • And, God knows all of it in one panorama; where we see one or two pixels at a time he sees the entire sweep of history all at once and in high-definition.

Wow!

I don’t know about you. It’s comforting to me to know that we serve a God who is wise enough to know everything that has, is, or will ever happen and, at the same time, good enough that he allows his creatures to experience free will. We err greatly when we believe and teach, as Pinnock did, that our own choices trump God’s knowledge. And we err greatly when we believe and teach, as some have done, that God’s omniscience reduces us to mere puppets on a string or resigns us to hopeless fatalism. God is good and wise enough to hold both of those tensions in perfect, divine balance.

So, what’s the best antidote to unhealthy theology?

When I consider all of this, I can’t help but think that it’s pure wonder. What else can you do? How else can you react? Since we serve a God this great, there’s little else to do than to be in awe.

Each of us may carry around elements of unhealthy theology. Hold them up to the light of the truth of God’s character. Wonder at his grandeur and goodness. That’s the best antidote to unhealthy theology.


Reference: Grudem, W. (1994). Systematic theology: An introduction to biblical doctrine. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.