The role of pastor has been recast during the past generation. Some churches envision their pastors as corporate CEOs. Others view their pastors as impresarios. New Testament pastoral ministry, however, does not consist in organizational direction or in stage management. The pastor’s leadership is essentially spiritual leadership.
What is spiritual leadership? One might define spiritual ministry by its object: it is ministry to the spirit, ministry that seeks to foster spiritual wellbeing. This answer is true, but it is only part of the truth. Spiritual ministry is defined, not only by its object, but by its power. It is not only ministry to the spirit, but also ministry by the Spirit.
The New Testament incessantly contrasts flesh with Spirit. In this contrast, the flesh is not the same thing as the body. It is more like human effort apart from divine grace and enablement. It is self-exertion apart from God which, just because it is apart from God, falls liable to the godless and unruly elements that continue to beset the most devout believer.
The hymnist has written, “The arm of flesh will fail you / Ye dare not trust your own.” This line, at least, rings true to the New Testament. The works of the flesh are both obvious and ugly; only the fruit of the Spirit is pure and holy and righteous. Furthermore, the flesh yearns against the Spirit and the Spirit yearns against the flesh. They are absolutely contrary to each other, and each seeks to block what the other wishes to do.
Spiritual leadership is not merely ministry to the spirit; it is also—and more importantly—ministry by the Spirit. Spiritual ministry must be performed in and through and by means of the power and leading of the Holy Spirit of God, who alone is able to transform the believer. Consequently, all genuinely spiritual ministry must reject self-reliance and fleshly effort, and depend wholly upon the Spirit of God for its success.
Dependence upon the Spirit does not mean that ministry is merely passive or quietistic, any more than sanctification is. It involves labor, struggle, and conflict. If a pastor wanted an easy job he would be disarming land mines or performing brain surgery. Ministry is something that a pastor does, not simply something that he watches. But he does it as the instrument of the Holy Spirit.
Effective pastors employ many tools of leadership. They learn organizational methods and relational techniques. They develop skills in homiletics and counseling. Because pastoral ministry is spiritual ministry, however, a pastor’s most important tools are spiritual tools.
Among these, none is more important than prayer. Prayer is supposed to change things. If it really does—if somehow it is “reversed thunder” and an “engine against the Almighty,” then prayer must be crucial to effecting change among the redeemed. In other words, one very important way of leading God’s people is to pray for them.
Certainly the apostle Paul prayed for the people to whom he ministered. For the Thessalonians he asked for abounding love and for hearts established in holiness (1 Thess. 3:12-13). He prayed that the Philippians would display love, knowledge, discernment, the ability to approve what really matters, sincerity, blamelessness, and full righteousness (Phil. 1:8-10). For the Colossians he prayed for knowledge, wisdom, and understanding to be coupled with a walk that demonstrated fruitfulness, knowledge of God, and divine strength (Col. 1:9-12). He besought God that the Corinthians would do no wrong, but what was right (2 Cor. 13:7). For the Ephesians he craved a spirit of wisdom and revelation, personal knowledge of God, and open eyes to comprehend their identity in Christ (Eph. 1:16-19). Paul asked God that he might see the Romans personally so that he could impart to them some spiritual gift (Rom. 1:9).
Paul’s prayers were an exercise in spiritual leadership. He prayed for the people under his care. More than that, he let them hear his prayers. They knew that he was praying for them and they knew exactly how he was praying.
One venue in which pastors can perform this important leadership ministry is in the pastoral prayer during the worship service. A pastoral prayer is a church prayer. In other words, the pastor addresses God in behalf of the congregation as a whole. The pastoral prayer is not about individual needs—it is not normally the place to pray for Aunt Tillie’s gallstones or the Smiths’ financial needs. Primarily, the pastoral prayer ought to be an expression of adoration directed toward the true and living God. Secondarily, it is a significant point at which the pastor intercedes with God in behalf of the congregation as a whole. It is the one time when he publicly leads the congregation by praying against their temptations, praying them through their adversities, and praying toward their spiritual advancement and wellbeing.
If prayer is indeed the “soul in paraphrase,” then the church will see more of their pastor’s soul when he prays than at any other time. His prayers are part of his example. His prayers are part of his teaching. More than that, his prayers are an important way in which he invokes the power of Christ, mediated through the Spirit, to work upon his congregation. Prayer is spiritual ministry. Prayer is spiritual leadership.
To be faithful to his calling, a pastor must lead—but he must lead from his knees. The unburdening of his soul toward God is a key element in getting his congregation where God wants them to be. There will be times when a pastor has to stand up, point at the Scriptures, and to demand obedience. He cannot stand tall, however, until he has first bowed low.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder (Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary). Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
George Herbert (1593–1633)
Prayer, the Church’s banquet, Angels’ age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tower,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days’-world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well dressed,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices, something understood.