Years ago, as I ministered on near-empty levels of energy and desperately tried to balance the various parts of my life, I signed up for the first course in my master’s program: Personal Spiritual Formation. It was in that class that I learned how important my journey—my spiritual growth—was to being a healthy leader. In a world where we see so many leaders fall from their pedestals, their masks crashing around them, we must stop and ask: What leads to healthy, sustainable leadership?
Stephen Smith argues in Inside Job: Doing the Work Within the Work that leaders must do the inner work of character building and knowing themselves if we want to lead in healthy, sustainable ways. Otherwise, he writes, “erosion will happen in our heart. We drift. We become complacent. We ignore the threat within. Like David, we find ourselves doing things we vowed to never do. We lower our guard because we’re tired. We live with little margin. We feel spread too thin, like we’re living on fumes. And then—boom! What we thought would never happen happens—and it happens to us.”
And, if your first thought is, “That could never happen to me!” Smith explains that you’re most at risk.
Smith points to Peter as an example for leaders to follow. He was not only one of the Twelve, he was also a family man who was married and cared for his brother and mother-in-law. He was definitely busy in ministry—even traveling on long journeys to preach—but his character was solid. Peter did the inner work of knowing himself and building his character over time. In 2 Peter 1:5–7, he gives us a picture of what that inner work entails. The eight building blocks—faith, goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, kindness, and love—are what Inside Job is all about.
Why Character Building?
Smith is clear: character matters. And he points to a plethora of Bible passages for support. Character doesn’t just happen. Instead, the Bible calls us to work at it. Character work is especially important for leaders. Interestingly, when Paul and Peter write about leadership requirements, they focus on character traits. As Smith puts it, “We can acquire skills. We can amass information. We can gain tips. But nothing replaces our need to do the work within the work.”
Some may believe character building is simply a luxury for those who have more time, or for those individuals whose character has gone awry. Both are misconceptions, though. Smith points out that, “Knowing yourself is critical to your own well-being as a leader but also for the benefit of the organization you serve.” Your lack of inner work will affect those you lead. It’s inevitable. Our character comes out in the ways we treat those around us. Consider for a moment how your team would answer this question if you asked: “What’s it like to work with me?”
Character spills over into every area of our lives. We need to learn that “there are no silos in life. Everything we do, have done, and will do is connected. There is especially no such thing as a silo of our spiritual life.” Instead, our spiritual life is connected to and affects everything in our lives. This is why the inner spiritual work is so important.
This book is written to any and all leaders, but I find it especially important for people leading in small-group ministry. As shepherds investing in and guiding a group of people, we must first and foremost be on a journey with God ourselves. We must be able to speak out of the work God is doing in our lives. We must be intentionally building up our character. We must be modeling sustainable leadership that knows how to say no. Only when we’ve done the hard work of inner work can we invite our group members to do the same.