In the past few weeks, we’ve looked at the importance of a leader who ”understands the times” biblically (here are Old Testament and New Testament examples). Today, I want to look at why it’s important to properly understand your own personal story within that overarching biblical narrative.
Knowing “what time it is” personally is essential for making wise decisions. Reggie McNeal has done a lot of work in this area. I’m going to lean on his book on spiritual leadership in order to focus on three elements we need to discern: personal life circumstances, personal gifting, and a sense of one’s calling.
1. Personal Life Circumstances
Knowing “what time it is” personally begins with a look backward to time that has passed. In order to look to their future, Christian leaders must first look backwards. Only then will they understand the influences and events that have shaped their outlook.
“Leaders who want to foster great self-awareness . . . need to reveal and understand the sources of their own identities, particularly their family of origin and its legacy and the significant personal experiences that have marked and shaped them.”
Note how he connects understanding the past to its relevance for one’s current circumstances. McNeal is not calling on leaders to be aware of their past merely from a biographical standpoint; his point is to call leaders to be aware of how their past impacts the present.
2. Personal Gifting
The next step in a leader knowing “what time it is” personally is to take stock of one’s personal gifting in order to discover how these gifts may serve the Church in this generation.
Because of a faulty view of humility, some Christians are hesitant to speak in terms of talents, abilities, and gifts. However, Scripture encourages wise stewardship of the natural abilities God has given us. Knowing “what time it is” personally means seeing how one’s particular strengths are uniquely suited to the particular needs of one’s current context.
Christian leaders understand the times by matching their personal gifts with the areas in which they can make the greatest contribution. John Stott is often credited with saying something like this: “Go wherever your gifts will be most exploited for the kingdom of God.” In other words, assess your skills and survey your world, and then maximize your effectiveness by putting your gifts and the world’s need together.
3. Personal Calling
What happens when a leader has a good handle on the formative influences of their past and a good understanding of their personal gift set and is presented with more than one relevant ministry option?
This quandary is best solved by a proper understanding of the leader’s personal calling in life. McNeal sees “the call” as framing “the central story line in their life dramas.” He adds:
“Leaders center their lives, their vocation, and their location around the call. The call is not an added dimension to their journey; it gives meaning to the trip. It is personal.”
Evangelicals sometimes misinterpret the nature of God’s calling on a person’s life. Some see a calling as directed toward a specific ministry task. For example, “God has called me to be a missionary to Africa” or “God has called me to be a pastor.” For some leaders, the calling may indeed be this specific.
However, McNeal recommends one views a personal calling in more general terms, carefully discerning between passion and passing interests and simultaneously distinguishing between “tasks” and “mission.” He writes:
“People, even leaders typically define themselves in terms of jobs, position descriptions, roles. . . . Great leaders, on the other hand, tell you what they are intending to accomplish, the mission they are on.”
In a general sense, all Christians have the calling to fulfill the Great Commission. This mission is fulfilled in multiple ways, and Christian leaders may engage in multiple tasks and activities over a lifetime. Thus, while the church’s overall mission is Great Commission obedience, the leader who knows “what time it is” will discern his or her particular role for a particular context. The specific tasks may change, but the leader’s general mission (within the larger framework of the church’s missional identity) will remain the same.
The content of the call must not be confused with the context of the call. Venues change, but the mission remains.