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Spirit(ual) Leadership Te Āhuru Wairua

By Jay Matenga (Director, Missions Interlink New Zealand; Associate Director, World Evangelical Alliance Mission Commission)

We live in an age where, to paraphrase The Teacher, “…of making many leadership books, there is no end” (Ecclesiastes 12:12). In the Christian world, as in the commercial world, leadership is a much sought-after art. There is no doubt that the world needs more great leaders. We have too many bad leaders. Every leadership book author seeks to rectify that imbalance. 

Over 25+ years of ministry, I have read many leadership books and leadership theory was a core aspect of my doctoral study. If there is one book I keep turning to like a Pacific wayfinder (navigator) to the Southern Cross, it’s J. Oswald Sanders’ classic, Spiritual Leadership. Unlike most other leadership books, which emphasise leadership as influencing people to achieve a leader’s vision, Sanders challenges us to look beyond ourselves for the purpose of, and power for, leadership. Whether of God or of ‘another’ source, every human being is a follower. Full stop. 

Human autonomy is an illusion—leadership is what God does. We too easily dismiss Jesus’ testimony that He only said what the Father taught Him (John 8:28) and did what the Father told Him (John 14:31). To us, Jesus says, “The Spirit will tell you whatever he receives from me” (John 16:15 NLT) and “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). If we have any sense of call to shepherd God’s people to establish and extend God’s kingdom, we must remain connected to the source as branches to the vine (John 15:5). Welcome to Spirit(ual) leadership.

Sanders wrote, “Spiritual leadership requires Spirit-filled people”. The first edition of his book was published the year I was born (1967). In spite of awakenings such as the 1936 revival in Ngaruawahia (with which, 34 year-old J. O. Sanders was connected), the charismatic movement was still in its infancy 31 years later when Sanders wrote Spiritual Leadership. At the time he was General Director of OMF. This was pace-setting teaching, developed in missions, originating from Aotearoa New Zealand.

As I said, we need more great leaders. Great leaders are godly leaders—Spirit-filled leaders. With Sanders, I believe great leaders must first be great followers. As the centurion instinctively understood himself to be a leader under authority (Matthew 8:9), so the Spirit-filled leader must never forget that they are under Christ’s authority, receiving God’s orders, relying on God’s resources (spiritual and material), to accomplish God’s mission as God’s Spirit leads. 

That does not mean that the leader is the sole arbiter of what God wants. No. Spiritual leaders in the Bible had others around them, helping them to discern well the will of God for God’s people. These were prophets, elders, counsellors, tribesmen (e.g. men of Issachar (Chronicles 12:32)), family, neighbours, slaves, angels, enemies, asses, bushes, whales, prostitutes, orphans, widows, and so on. As a follower of Christ, the Spirit-filled leader must be a widely attentive listener. Similar to the Nigerian proverb that believes, “It takes a village to raise a child”, we must realise that it takes a spiritual community to raise a spiritual leader. The leader, then, needs simply to respond to the call and follow. 

So, a great leader must be a great follower, a discerning listener, spiritually attuned, yielding to Christ, relying on God’s Spirit to set direction and empower them with spiritual gifts, character and authority to nurture and grow the community they are called to lead. There are no solo agents. We move together, on God’s mission.

This article was originally published in OMF Serving Asia, August/September edition and has been republished with permission.