Antidotes for the Toxins
in Spiritual Leadership
That Destroy Authentic Ministry
By James Bradford
This past year on Sunday nights I sequentially went through the Minor Prophets. I called this series “Major Words From the Minor Prophets.” One Sunday night I did something I rarely do. Because of the diversity of our congregation — and at the risk of having some people feel excluded — I felt I needed to speak to the spiritual leaders in our congregation. They were on my heart, and I felt we needed to spend time in the first half of Malachi 2 where God speaks to spiritual leaders.
After my message, I invited every credentialed minister in the church to come forward and be prayed for. The fact there were two rows of people wall-to-wall shows how many spiritual leaders are in our church. Because of that message I was invited to revisit that passage of Scripture with you today.
Malachi 2:1,2 reads, “ ‘And now this admonition is for you, O priests. If you do not listen, and if you do not set your heart to honor my name,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘I will send a curse upon you, and I will curse your blessings. Yes, I have already cursed them, because you have not set your heart to honor me.’ ”
When I speak to pastors and missionaries, I tell them that what we do as leaders while we navigate through the journey of our call must never become a performance. This issue has become one of the greatest battles of my life. I have been in full-time ministry more than 25 years. The last thing I want is for what I do to become a performance.
Scottish preacher and writer James Stewart once described the landscape of religious leadership in Jesus’ time this way: “The Pharisees had externalized religion, the scribes had professionalized religion, the Sadducees had secularized religion, and the zealots had politicized religion.”
Steward’s words explain why spiritual leadership is so toxic to our spiritual health. People do not need to be around religious things and religious leadership very long before they start fighting every one of these battles. This happens easily. Unless we pay incredibly close attention to our hearts, those in a religious context with the label leader can easily become externalized, professionalized, far too cynical, and way too political. Everything that seems to be a part of religious leadership takes us off dead center of the very thing we ought to flow out of — our relationship with God. I never want to stand and perform in front of my congregation. What I do as a leader must be the fruit of a heart that is prepared before God.
My biggest problem is me. It is not the budget or the parishioner that can complicate my life. My biggest problem is taking care of my heart. The longer I pastor, the bigger the battle becomes to not be externalized, to not be professionalized, to not become cynical, and to not become political.
This is where God put His finger on the spiritual leaders in Malachi 2. He said, “I have set you to honor my name, but your hearts no longer do that.” He also said, “I have already cursed you because you have not set your heart to honor me.”
I am always impressed with my capacity to miss the obvious. Sherlock Holmes and his trusted sidekick, Watson, went camping. They had bedded down for the night and were lying in their sleeping bags on their backs. Mr. Holmes said to Mr. Watson, “Would you look up and tell me what you see.”
Mr. Watson said, “Well, I see a sky filled with stars.”
Mr. Holmes said, “What does that tell you, Mr. Watson?”
Mr. Watson replied, “Well, theologically this tells me that God is great and I am small. Astronomically, there must be multiplied millions of stars in our galaxy. Atmospherically, it tells me that we will probably have good weather tomorrow. Why, Mr. Holmes, what does it tell you?”
To which Mr. Holmes replied, “Somebody stole our tent.”
It does not matter what leadership title is over your door. The obvious is this: God called you, in Jesus you are saved, and His Spirit fills you. Period. That’s it. The problem with everything else surrounding religious leadership is that it wants to take you away from the obvious.
Spiritual leadership is one of the most toxic things to our spiritual lives. The priests had no excuse at this time in Israel’s history. The temple that had been destroyed by the Babylonians had been rebuilt under the preaching of Haggai and Zechariah and the leadership of Joshua and Zerubbabel. Under the God-favored leadership of Nehemiah the walls had been set around Jerusalem. There was every capacity for spiritual restoration with the rebuilding of the temple. The economic and political restoration in Jerusalem brought functionality and security back to the city. But instead, there was drift, loss, and corruption at the highest levels of leadership because something had happened at a heart level. God’s diagnosis through Malachi was: “Your hearts no longer honor me.” He did not say “you are not doing the job of spiritual leadership,” but “your hearts no longer honor me.”
God takes it one step further in verses 7–9, “ ‘The lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, and from his heart men should seek instruction — because he is the messenger of the Lord Almighty. But you have turned from the way and by your teaching have caused many to stumble; you have violated the covenant with Levi,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘So I have caused you to be despised and humiliated before all the people, because you have not followed my ways but have shown partiality in matters of the law.’ ” Here God addresses their teaching ministry. The problem is at a personal level because they had deviated from the ways of the Lord.
I have reduced preaching to answering two questions. It is probably a little more complicated than this, but ultimately preaching answers two questions: What? and So what?
The what is the “thus saith the text” — what does the text say and mean?
The so what is the prophetic dimension of teaching — the various directions we could go in applying a given text. What does God want to say to this group that I am speaking to on this particular day?
Jesus fed 5,000 people 2,000 years ago; that’s the what. But the so what is for the average person sitting in the congregation who is living with stress, may lose his job, and whose kids are going bonkers. This person may think So what that Jesus fed 5,000 people 2,000 years ago.
Pastors need to answer the what and the so what. That is why I develop messages partly by immersing myself in the text, and partly by pacing and praying. In the text I get the thus saith the text; in the pacing and praying, I get the “thus saith the Lord.” These two things need to come together. But if my heart no longer honors God, and I am not following His ways, there develops a serious disconnect between my capacity to minister the tangible what of the text and the prophetic so what of God’s Word to people. Between what and so what there is a breakdown because something has broken down in my heart. Ministry has then become just a performance, and I am simply doing what I am paid to do.
So, what is the antidote to the toxins of spiritual leadership and its tendency to take us off dead center and turn ministry into a performance? It is not complicated.
I want to provide two antidotes for the toxins of spiritual leadership this morning.
I believe the first antidote is honesty. A man came to my office a couple months ago. He is a former pastor, and now an evangelist. When he is home he worships with us at Central Assembly. He said, “Pastor, I’m 65 years old, and for the last 5 years I’ve had to deal with honesty. Not honesty with others, I’ve never had a lying problem. It is honesty right here in my heart. I can’t believe at my age how big the battle to be honest with my own heart has become.”
This summer I sat with another man who was almost 65 years old — a pastor and evangelist who is no longer in ministry. In a profound way he is starting from scratch to rebuild his life because he skipped over the issues of honesty with himself. This is why I believe the hardest thing about being a Christian is the painful, abject honesty that Jesus calls us to concerning what is going on in our own hearts.
A few months ago I wrote down seven questions I need to keep asking myself as a spiritual leader. When it comes to the issue of knowing God I do not want to miss the obvious. I do not want my gravestone to read: “He pastored a great church.” I would like my gravestone to read: “Here is somebody who really knew God.” Here are these seven questions:
Am I growing in my relationship with God?
I constantly ask myself, If the preaching ministry was taken from me, would I still have a personal, growing relationship with Jesus?
We have services at 9 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. on Sunday. A few weeks ago I came to the 9 a.m. service. I had spent a great deal of time waiting on God that week and the weeks before. As the music started, tears came to my eyes. I started to weep and felt the presence of God. I began to respond to the Lord. I thought, Lord, as hard as it is some days, I never want to lose this place. Because as a pastor, I do not come first as a worship leader, but I come as a worshiper. Lord God, I never want the hunger, the capacity to know You, love You, and experience You to go away, even though I am standing in front of 1,000 people that I must lead in worship. It does not matter; this is not a performance. I am coming as Your child. Thank You, God, that by Your grace alone, my heart is at least still soft enough to love You even more than what I do for You. Thank You, Lord.
Am I pursuing integrity?
The second question concerns pursuing integrity. I have to constantly be rigidly and rigorously honest with myself. I ask myself: Are there areas of ongoing secrecy in my life that I am trying to hide from those closest to me?This is where red lights always come on. We begin to believe deceptive things like: I’m a spiritual leader. Everybody thinks I’m spiritual. I’m a man of God. I’ve done this a long time. I have the privilege and right to dabble in things I would not want my congregation to do. I’m above some things: I’m above the law; I’m above standards; and I’m above morality. I can get away from integrity, and I can still keep convincing people every Sunday morning that I’m something that increasingly I’m not in secret areas of my life.
If there are patterns of secrecy in your life that are morally questionable, and you realize you’re consciously trying to hide them from your spouse, your boss, your friends, and your pastor, I want to tell you that these are the things you need to be rigorously honest about. When something has integrity it is like a structure — a bridge or a building — that has the capacity to stand up under pressure, rigor, and adversity.
The priests Malachi addressed had deviated from pursuing integrity in their own lives and had lost their moral and spiritual authority when they came to teach the Law. When integrity starts to weaken in your life, you are going to collapse. You are not going to win. It takes incredibly painful honesty to let God open your heart to expose the secret motivations — the behaviors that are happening under the cloak of darkness and secrecy. We need to pray, “God, help our hearts to be absolutely honest before You, and help us to live in the light.”
Am I authentic?
When it comes to being myself, not trying to imitate other people, or be something other than what God has created me to be, I need to ask myself this third question: How often do people say, “Pastor, thank you for your authenticity.”?The more I try to perform and impress people, the less people say this. But I view pastoral leadership — spiritual leadership of any kind — this way.
I made five commitments to Central Assembly when I came there 3 years ago. My second commitment was: “I commit to always be a growing person.”
I do not want to stop living before I die. I do not want to stop the disciplines of growth. I want to be a growing person.
As pastor, I first commit to be a growing person. I then invite everybody to join me in that process. I love it when someone says, “Pastor, thank you for being a real person.” They do not compliment my sermons or my staff restructuring. They just say, “Thank you for being a real person.” The degree I do not hear this very often shows me there is slippage in my heart. My ministry is becoming a performance; it is not coming out of the authenticity of me being a growing person.
Am I honest with myself?
The fourth question concerns my capacity to own responsibility. Do I acknowledge my mistakes, or do I project blame and use the pulpit to vent unresolved anger? Am I being rigidly honest with the issues in my own heart?When I am not, I am unhealthy inside. If I use my congregation to deal with my pathologies, it is toxic for me personally and toxic for my congregation. Ask yourself, Do I acknowledge my mistakes? Do I own myself? Am I honest enough at a heart level to say some things inside me are not working right? Do I keep blaming everybody else but myself?
I had a person say to me, “I have been fired from five jobs, and it’s because every place I have worked is lousy.” He does not get it. There is one common denominator to every place he has been fired, and that is himself — nothing else.
Am I consumed with passion for the future?
The fifth questionconcerns embracing change. Is my attitude faith-filled and future-focused, or am I too nostalgic about the past and too fearful of taking risks in the present.Even at 53 years old I am surprised at my growing rigidity and my capacity to wallow in nostalgia rather than staying rigidly focused on appreciating the past but engaging the future with faith and anticipation.
The fifth commitment I made to Central Assembly was to believe with the congregation for the future of the church. The moment I can no longer be consumed with a passion full of faith for the church’s future, my ministry becomes just a performance. I am simply putting in time to get a paycheck. Instead, I made a commitment that I will constantly believe with the congregation that the church has a future in God. The moment I no longer believe this, I will do the church a favor and resign as pastor. My ministry must never become a performance. I need to constantly ask myself, Am I becoming too cynical? Am I becoming too nostalgic? Are the issues my preferences or the hard decisions it will take to move this ministry forward?
Am I growing in ministry?
The sixth questionconcerns loving learning. Am I coasting intellectually, or am I disciplining myself to personal study and reflection.When I turned 45 years old, it surprised me how tempting it was to coast on all the work and investment of the first half of my ministry and give up the disciplines of growth. I must be rigidly honest with myself. What do I do when I go home? Do I pick up a book or do I veg in front of the TV? Am I just getting by in preparing messages? Am I just getting by doing what I used to do, not digging anymore, not learning anymore, or not keep trying intellectually?
Do I grow in my understanding of people? I keep time open in my calendar every week for anybody who wants to see me. I have enough staff and a big enough church to pastor that I could justify not having time to do that. But if I am going to stay a leader I need to leave time for anybody to see me. I never want to lose touch with what people are thinking, feeling, and struggling with in life. When I come as a priestly minister, I bring God and people together. This is the intersection — the crossroads of the Scripture — where God’s sovereignty meets man’s situation. I need to know God, and I need to keep learning about people, so ministry does not become a performance. Ministry must be humanized and authentically spiritualized as I bring people to the Word of God. Something catalytic happens at that moment.
Am I living joyfully?
The last questionconcerns joy. Am I living joyfully? I need to be honest with myself about this. Am I living under the self-imposed pressure of always needing to prove something to somebody, or am I living with the joy of being Jesus’ servant?
I do the stupidest things and trip all over myself when I feel pressured to prove something to somebody — when I go into a board meeting and feel pressured to prove to the board that I am a good leader; when someone comes to see me for prayer, and I feel pressured to prove to that person that I am a spiritual person; when I get up Sunday morning and feel pressured to prove to somebody that I’m a good preacher.
My joy is gone because I am living under pressure. My God is me, not the One whom my heart ought to be set to honor. I become obsessed with proving something for myself.
On occasions when I speak to college students preparing for ministry I say, “Look, as far as I am concerned, you do not need to prove a thing to anybody. Just go and do what Jesus has asked you to do. Keep honest with yourself, and keep your heart humble.”
The second antidote for spiritual toxicity is humility. God said to the priests in Malachi’s time, “You have no longer set your hearts to honor me.” A serious spiritual toxin had corrupted their hearts. This toxin was probably produced by the demands of the spiritual leadership to which God had called them. Their ways corrupted their teaching because they deviated from the law of God they were to teach.
My wife was reading a book, and she said, “This author is saying something I never noticed before. There is a lot of talk these days in Christian books and in churches about commitment. We need to be more committed, but we rarely hear the word surrender anymore.”
This past spring I read Spiritual Leadership by Henry and Richard Blackaby. I want to read a part of a paragraph to you:
“All a leader can do is submit. Some spiritual leaders try to be more committed. What they need is to be more submitted. There’s a significant difference between a personal determination to try harder and a complete abandonment of one’s self to God’s purposes. The former rests on people and their commitment; the latter relies on God and His sovereignty. The biographies of history’s greatest spiritual leaders reveal specific divine encounters wherein these men and women yielded themselves to God at the deepest level of their lives.
“All spiritual leaders have a point when they yield to Christ as their Savior and Lord. But the greatest leaders have subsequent encounters with Christ, in which they fervently, unconditionally yield every aspect of their lives to Him. The more these people come to know God, the more they recognize their own limitations and the more compelled they are, as a result, to yield to God.”1
It is a painful, stripping, experience to come before God in abject humility, for He has reduced you to the place where you even doubt that you have the capacity to commit like you ought to commit. When everything is based on my commitment, I am still in the driver’s seat. I make the calls as to how much of me is given to Him and how much energy I put His way. But submission is painful. It is reducing. It is humiliating. It is before God.
Sometimes I lie on my face before I leave my office to preach and say, “God, I have no clue how to lead this people. I have no clue how to fix this place. I have no clue how to overcome the obstacles and take us into the future.”
Humility is reducing. But it is the exact place I need to be when I start feeling confident; when I start feeling that I have things where I want them; and when I feel I have some control because then I become cocky, and my dependence on God begins to shift from Him to me.
This is not rocket science, but this is where God calls us. It is not our capacity to commit, but it is our willingness to submit and say, “God, I am nothing, and You are everything.”
I eat carpet. I lie before God and say, “God, I am nothing. God, You have every part of my heart. Help me to be relentlessly honest with everything inside of me. Help me be relentlessly dependent on You for everything — even the things I think I have down, and I am able to produce. My God, keep me broken before You. Help my capacity to follow Your will not be based on my ability to figure out what You want but on Your sovereign capacity to get me to the right place at the right time in my life.”
I was reading on the will of God and the author said that when we think of the will of God, we think blueprints, spiritual tip tricks, and directional instructions. But God tends to use words like discipleship, intimacy, and submission. These are the places where God’s will is gestated, and where His greatest purposes of power are released through us. It is in those places where we finally understand that in humility it’s “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord” (Zechariah 4:6).
The funny thing about honesty and humility is they are hard, but they are not complicated. It is the simple, basic center where we say, “O God, let me always have a heart that honors You, and let this never become just a performance.”
Here is my prayer for you: “Lord, here we are. Here are our hearts. Here are our lives. Here are my faltering words. Yet here is Your amazing truth. You spoke to the priests and the leaders and said, ‘I want your heart.’
“Lord, would You give us honesty with torturing questions that cause us to examine the depths of what is happening in our hearts as we seek to lead for Your name? And my God, let there be the humility of absolute submission to You and brokenness before You whereby You gestate purpose, life, and grace in us.
“God, here is my heart again. Here are our hearts. Thank You for the anointing and the presence of God we sense as we are honest and humble before You. I pray You will keep our hearts from the toxins of spiritual leadership. And O God, help us to honor You. We love You, Lord. There is no one we want more than You, Lord, in our hearts. So here we are. May Your blessing be upon all who read this article in Jesus’ name. Amen.”
1. Henry T. Blackaby and Richard Blackaby, Spiritual Leadership: Moving People to God’s Agenda (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2001).