In 1 Corinthians 11:1, Paul states, "imitate me, as I imitate Christ." On one hand, that makes discipleship an easy process. I don't have to be a theologian or Bible scholar; I just have to be willing to bring other people on a spiritual journey with me. We are simply saying "imitate me. Do what I do."
But on the other hand, it makes the discipleship process very scary, because we are simply saying "imitate me"–and, well, I'm just not sure that would always be wise. It makes me realize that my greatest challenge and priority as a leader is to lead myself well so that I become a leader worth following.
Here are just a few disciplines that I have prioritized in my own life to ensure that I am leading myself well.
1. Feed Yourself. I think there are two dimensions of feeding yourself. First, leaders must be immersed in Scripture. Reading it, meditating on it, studying it, putting it into practice. There is absolutely no substitute. About four times a year, I develop a Bible reading plan for myself that is separate from any small-group leadership or other teaching responsibilities I have. I don't want to just read the Bible to get a word of truth for my group; I want to read the Bible so that I can grow as a person.
Second, I believe that leaders are learners. I try to be very intentional about reading books that help me lead better. A few that have helped me in recent months include Simple Small Groups (Bill Search), Making Small Groups Work (Henry Cloud and John Townsend), and Renovation of the Heart (Dallas Willard).
2. Stretch Yourself. It's easy to lead when there are no challenges, difficulties, or tensions. But real leadership happens when we face something that makes us uncomfortable or disturbs our normal routine in some way. If we lead for long enough, then we will find ourselves in stretching situations whether we want to be in them or not. So I've made it a practice to stretch myself regularly and intentionally in order to prepare myself better for leadership challenges when they come my way.
Stretching myself might mean serving in an area that is not part of my natural ministry affinity, being intentional about sharing my faith with someone, or slowing down long enough to talk with the homeless man that I pass on my way to lunch. All of us have spiritual muscle groups that aren't worked as much as others. Locate those muscles in your life and put them to work.
3. Pace Yourself. Leading yourself well requires intentionality. Our hope is that we would be a leader worth following, but that will require time and discipline. And if we want to become a leader worth following, then we need to set specific and measurable goals. Because you never hit a goal that you don't set.
About three times a year, I set goals for prayer, giving, Bible reading, and accountability. I make a list of books that will help me grow in areas of my gifts and put myself on a track to read those in the following months. I am not the leader that I want to be, but if I pace myself over a series of months, I will grow into a leader worth following. And maybe our personal growth process will be helpful to the people we lead.
4. Rest Yourself. Honestly, this is the hardest one for me to practice. I love feeding and pacing and stretching, but resting is difficult for me. I encourage all of my leaders at National Community Church to set aside one night a week that is their night. No small group prep, no calls or texts with group members, no meetings with group members.
When I practice Sabbath, a couple of things happen in my life. First, I remember that God is in control of my group and not me. Second, I am recharged so that I can lead from a place of strength and actually have something worthwhile to offer my group members. If you want to become a leader worth following, then you will regularly lead yourself to places of rest so that your leadership pace is sustainable.
I don't practice all of these easily. Becoming a leader worth following requires discipline, time, and tenacity. But I'm convinced that it's the only way to lead. If we lead ourselves well, then disciples will follow.