Note: This article is excerpted from our Training Tool Spiritual Disciplines for Leaders.
Jon and Colin play vigorous racquetball every Wednesday and Friday at lunch. Every few weekends, they take time to talk and relax together. They have learned that their relationship doesn’t grow without spending time simply enjoying each other’s company. They have found a balance point between being friends for the purpose of playing racquetball together and being friends who simply have affection for each other.
This balance point that Jon and Colin have found reflects a tension in friendship that researchers call affection versus instrumentality. In what ways is a friendship an end in itself, characterized by affection and simple enjoyment of another person? And in what ways is that friendship instrumental—a means to another end, such as playing sports or engaging in a hobby with another person? Most friendships have elements of both.
This tension provides a thought-provoking framework for those of us in Christian ministry to consider our relationship with God. How much do we engage in spiritual disciplines or practices because we long to grow closer to God as an end in itself? How much do we engage in those disciplines as a means to another end?
Because we are partners with God in ministry, it’s completely right and good for Christian leaders to engage in spiritual disciplines that have a purpose beyond ourselves. This includes praying for the people with whom we minister and studying the Bible to prepare for preaching or teaching. Yet these practices have a component of instrumentality. They are not focused on simply enjoying the presence of God and growing closer in intimate friendship with Jesus Christ. As humans, we need God in many ways in our lives, so our relationship with God will always have aspects of instrumentality.
The people of Israel and the followers of Jesus throughout the ages also spent time in God’s presence simply enjoying the wonder of God’s goodness. “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty,” says the Psalmist. “My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God” (Psalm 84:1, 2). Jesus encouraged his disciples to abide in him and also to enjoy friendship with him (John 15). Countless other Scriptures testify to how precious it is to draw near to God.
In order to maintain spiritual health, every person in ministry needs to engage in a few spiritual disciplines that nurture relationship with God as an end in itself. In conversations with other pastors and congregational leaders, I’ve identified several reasons why this is true.
To Appreciate All Aspects of Life
First, we need to remember that the whole of our life matters to God, not just our ministry. We so easily get caught up in what we are doing, and our identity shifts away from being a child of God to being a pastor, staff member, or other kind of minister. When we engage in spiritual disciplines that have no obvious function related to our ministry, we nurture our identity as God’s beloved children.
Anna, a musician who has led the praise band at her church for many years, has practiced fasting both from food and from things other than food. One year she felt led by God to stop playing the guitar for Lent, a form of fasting she had never experienced before. She had to bow out of the worship leadership for several events as well as Sunday worship for that period of time.
The first Sunday she attended the worship service without a role in leading music, she found herself criticizing several aspects of the music. God spoke to her clearly that morning, saying, “If you can’t worship me for who I am, we have a problem.” As the weeks passed, she came to understand that her absorption in playing music had blinded her to other aspects of worship, particularly intercessory prayer. During and after the guitar fast, she has engaged in intercessory prayer in new and fruitful ways. This new pattern of prayer reminded her that God cares about her whole self, not just her musical side.