Pastors and ministry leaders are not just leaders, building the household of faith; we are also soldiers under attack on the battlefield of faith. As God’s appointed leaders, we need to strategically plan for evangelism, discipleship, church growth, church planting, and church revitalization, but we must at the same time also strategize together for the inescapable battle that will rage in us and around us as we do this work.
How do we strategize together as leadership communities for the battle? Let me suggest three ways.
1. Each leader must humbly accept and be growingly aware of his susceptibilities.
I have seen in my own life and witnessed in the lives of other leaders that spiritual pride leaves you exposed to spiritual attack. No leader is safe thinking he is impervious to attack. A spiritually healthy leadership community is always watchful and alert to the spiritual dangers of life in a fallen world and life as a church or ministry leader. Perhaps there is no better defense against spiritual attack than humility; that is, a sense of constant need for protective and empowering grace that then motivates us to watch for danger and cry out for God’s help and the loving help of fellow leaders.
The danger here is that theological knowledge, powerful gifts, ministry experience, and success can distort the way a leader views himself. Until we are on the other side, these things make us susceptible to spiritual attack. The things I have listed here not only don’t protect us from attack but may actually be indicators that we are in even greater danger. Of course the enemy wants to damage the church of Jesus Christ and the reputation of the Christ of the church. What better way to do this than to capture and morally wound one of the leaders of the church? Theological arrogance makes us vulnerable to spiritual warfare.
Pride in ministry achievements puts you in battle danger. Lack of openness to the pastoral care and concern of fellow leaders exposes you to danger. Surrounding yourself with leaders who are no longer willing or are too fearful to challenge and confront you is to leave yourself exposed. Failure to cry out again and again that God will not only protect you from the enemy but will protect you from you leaves you exposed to attack. Leaders who forget that they are not just preachers, pastors, and planners but also soldiers in an ongoing war leaves them vulnerable to danger. Any failure in a leader to live in a way that is humble and alert leads that leader nowhere good.
Best-selling author Paul David Tripp offers 12 gospel-centered leadership principles for both aspiring leaders and weathered pastors as they navigate the challenging waters of pastoral ministry. This resource shows the vital role that the leadership community plays in molding leaders.
Fellow leaders, we must remember who we are, we must keep mindful of where we live, and we must stay alert to the wiles of the enemy. None of this should be depressingly pessimistic or darkly introspective; it should not be motivationally paralyzing, and it can never be God forgetful. Remember, God’s warnings are always loving tools of his protecting grace. Remember too that we have been called to lead by a victorious Savior, who suffered for our victory and who cares more about the health, safety, and success of his church than we ever will. He knows who we are at heart level, he knows the nature of the world we live in, and he knows the kinds of attacks we face, because he faced them.
If your leadership community functions as a gospel community, then your humble confession of personal areas of susceptibility won’t be dangerous because it will be greeted with mercy-infused understanding, intercessory prayer, and strategies for help—all fueled by confidence in the presence and grace of the Savior. What is dangerous are naïve assumptions of peacetime safety and proud assessments of personal invulnerability that silence a conversation that every leader needs to have regularly with those in his leadership community. The gospel welcomes us to be honest because it offers divine aid for everything we would need to be honest about. And, finally, we must not let our desire to be respected by fellow leaders keep us from confessing where we are under attack and where we tend to succumb.
2. As a leadership community, personal and corporate spiritual war must be a regular part of our ongoing conversation with one another and a central focus of our prayer together.
I love when ministry communities think carefully and plan strategically for the ministries that God has ordained to occupy his church. I have a deep respect for gospel dissatisfaction, by which I mean that we’re not satisfied with a certain level of spiritual growth in the people God has called us to lead, that we keep longing for more people to come into the kingdom, and that we work to see more churches planted. I love when the gospel vision and energy of a leadership community don’t wane but grow and grow. I love when new blood comes into a leadership community that has grown a bit passive and respectfully disrupts, producing new insight and new zeal. God calls his people to be on the march, not ever resting, until we hear the words, “Come, for everything is now ready, enter into your final home” (see Luke 14:17). I am thankful for the experts who have studied the history of the church, the lives of leaders who have gone before us, how successful ministries have strategized and planned. I am heartened by leaders who never stop listening, examining, and learning.
But I am very concerned when a leadership community has no time for and gives no place to honest and protective conversations about the spiritual war, inside us and outside us, that is the regular life of every leader in every church and ministry everywhere. We need to talk humbly and honestly; we need to listen carefully and with sympathy; and we need to speak with wisdom, comfort, encouragement, and warning.
There are moments when, because of what we have heard and learned, we need to lovingly stand against a leader whom we have regularly stood with. With the goal of protection, we must stand in his way, refusing to endorse or support something that is either spiritually dangerous or evidence that the enemy has already won a victory in this leader’s heart. These conversations and actions are hard; they are most often tense and awkward—the thing of things in most relationships you want to avoid—but you really can’t be a leadership community, fueled by gospel love, and avoid them. (For a New Testament example, see Galatians 2.)
We cannot allow ourselves to deny evidence that a leader is under spiritual siege or has been deceived into stepping over God’s boundaries because we are afraid of uncomfortable relational moments, questions about our motives, or pushback we may receive. We cannot let ministry busyness excuse the fact that we are not keeping one another alert and safe. Spiritual warfare, if it’s as normal as the Bible presents it, must always be on our ministry agenda. The battle is ongoing; we will either recognize it in and around us and respond appropriately as a leadership community, or, whatever our confessional position is with regard to spiritual warfare, we will function as if it does not exist, and in so doing, expose our leadership community to danger. When it comes to the great spiritual war, the victory of our captain welcomes us to be humbly honest and functionally courageous. May we live and lead together with that victory in view.
3. We must examine and defend ourselves against Satan’s devices.
It is so important to understand that the primary tool the enemy uses to attack, disable, defeat, and set aside ministry leaders is ministry. Ministry itself is fraught with temptations that play to the complicated loyalties, desires, and motivations of the heart of every leader. Desires for good things morph to become dangerous things because they have become ruling things. Things that are okay to want become things that now control. Along with this is the fact that our sense of identity is always in a state of flux, that is, we are always thinking about who we are and defining and redefining ourselves. Ministry failure can redefine a leader in ways that make him vulnerable to attack. Ministry success can also redefine a leader and expose him to new deceptions and seductions. Public acclaim can alter the way we think about who we are and what we need. Leaders who once led with a servant mentality assess their track record and become comfortable acting entitled and demanding. The trust and respect of fellow leaders tempt us to give way to fear of man, becoming, as a result, less than candid about spiritual attack and our spiritual health.
Our Savior is alert, possessing every tool necessary for the battle.
Ministry leadership is not a fortress against spiritual attack; it’s the front line. Theological expertise doesn’t shelter you from attack, but the pride of knowledge may be one of the things that makes you susceptible. Powerful gifts don’t alleviate your vulnerability, because the deceitfulness of sin can mean that you’re better at preaching the gospel to others than to yourself. A strong sense of ministry calling doesn’t free you from attack; rather, the feelings of being different, special, and set aside may, in reality, be what the enemy uses to get at your heart, causing you to let down your guard. The desire to achieve, which itself is not wrong, may devolve into leader competitiveness, leader jealousy, and leader disunity, exposing leaders to subtle or not so subtle anger and bitterness. The closeness and intensity of day-by-day ministry may tempt leaders to step over God’s protective relational boundaries, making a leader vulnerable to romantic and sexual temptations. Even the handling of ministry funds can tempt a leader to begin to use what has been dedicated for gospel productivity for personal ease and luxury.
The war I have just described takes place in the heart and life of a ministry leader and within a leadership community without any of those leaders moving an inch or abandoning the ministry work that they regularly do. So we do need to study, discuss, and strategize how to protect ourselves from the particular devices that Satan may use to harm the leadership community of which we are a part or to destroy our life and ministry or that of a fellow leader.
Our Savior is alert, possessing every tool necessary for the battle. My prayer is that we would be alert too, ready to use divine tools to defeat what we could never defeat on our own, before the enemy has established a stronghold.
This article is adapted from Lead: 12 Gospel Principles for Leadership in the Church by Paul David Tripp.
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