Leadership books come and go; one batch quickly replaces another on bookstore shelves. Because of the urgent tone that runs through these types of books, their initial sense of immediacy contributes to their short shelf life, causing them to pass rapidly from the conversation and seem out of date, only later to be supplanted by books that make similar points in different ways. Rarely does a leadership book transcend the cultural moment in which it is born and offer counsel that is still relevant years or even decades after first appearing.
Spiritual Leadership by J. Oswald Sanders is one of those rare books. First released in 1967, Spiritual Leadership has been through multiple printings and a major revision. It is hailed by some of the most well known names in evangelicalism, including John Maxwell and John MacArthur, an interesting combination since Maxwell represents a highly pragmatic stream of evangelicalism and MacArthur generally eschews pragmatism.
What makes Sanders’ book stand out, decades after its first release, is the breadth of topics it covers and the personal experience of its author. As the consulting director of Overseas Missionary Fellowship and a preacher who served in multiple countries, Sanders had the ability to see what leadership elements are spiritual in nature and thus transcend cultures. For this reason, even with the major cultural shifts we have experienced in the past forty years, Sanders’ work remains beneficial.
Sanders’ View of Leadership
Spiritual Leadership begins with a necessary chapter justifying a person’s ambition for leadership. It is a misinterpretation of the biblical teaching on humility that leads some Christians to resist leadership or influence (and Sanders, for the most part, equates leading with influencing).
The Ambition of Servanthood
Sanders argues for good ambition that is motivated by godly goals. “Ambition which centers on the glory of God and welfare of the church is a mighty force for good,” he writes (13). Those who aspire to leadership seek an honorable task. The church needs more leaders, not less, but the kind of leaders we need are “authoritative, spiritual, and sacrificial” (18).
Here, Sanders clues us in on the nature of Christian leadership and why the biblical understanding is unique. Spiritual leadership emphasizes servanthood, and the kind of service in view is one that yields to God’s sovereignty and is willing to endure suffering. Spiritual leadership and suffering go hand in hand.
Next, Sanders turns to two apostles, Paul and Peter, and looks for insights into leadership from their lives and letters. He focuses primarily on the qualifications the apostles laid out for those who shepherd God’s people. Beginning with this list as a base and then adding other qualities for leadership he has discovered in his study of church history and in his observance of other spiritual leaders, Sanders lays out a number of essential qualities.
- He starts with discipline, then explains the importance of vision, wisdom, and the importance of making decisions.
- Next, he turns to the characteristics of courage, humility, integrity and sincerity.
- Good leaders need to maintain a sense of humor, a righteous anger at wrongdoing and injustice, even as they cultivate patience, benefit from friendship, and tell the truth with tact and diplomacy.
- Great leaders are able to inspire others to pursue the same vision, while at the same time, organize and execute the plans that lead to such a vision.
- He adds two more qualities: the ability to be a good listener and the art of writing letters.
Once Sanders has worked through this list of essential qualities, he devotes a chapter to what is perhaps the most important quality for spiritual leadership: being Spirit-filled. Among all the other qualities, this is the one that is indispensable (77).
“All real Christian service is but the expression of Spirit power through believers yielded to Him” (80).
The reader should not assume this means the Spirit will override or replace a person’s natural leadership skills. Instead, the Spirit takes the natural gifts we have and then enhances and stimulates them, maximizing our effectiveness for the glory of God (81).
Next, Sanders discusses a number of personal disciplines that help the leader be effective. He begins with prayer, the discipline that highlights our dependence on God’s power and our need for the Spirit. To prevail in prayer is to have a right relationship with God that leads to unhindered communion and answered prayer (90).
Sanders encourages leaders to use their time wisely, avoiding activities that are spiritually detrimental. Not everyone will divide their days into five-minute periods, as Sanders shows John Wesley and F.B. Meyer doing, but a leader will at least take responsibility for whatever lies within the range of control (99).
Another necessary discipline is reading, which should always be closely connected to serious thinking. Offering strategies for getting the most out of reading, Sanders recommends that a leader see reading as “the outward expression of his inner aspirations” (104).
Growing in leadership is a continual process, which is why Sanders offers advice on how to improve one’s leadership skills. He is forthright about the cost of leadership and the heavy toll it takes on a person, including daily self-sacrifice, periods of intense loneliness, chronic fatigue, enduring criticism and rejection, feeling the pressure to succeed, and watching one’s leadership exact a cost from others.
In response to the cost of leadership, leaders are likely to fail when confronted with certain tests. Sanders warns against spiritual compromise, selfish ambition, and faithlessness regarding situations that seem at first to be impossible. The leader must learn how to go on in times of failure and how to avoid jealousy whenever a rival succeeds. The latter chapters in the book focus on the need for a leader to delegate responsibility and to leave the organization with a proper replacement.
“The ultimate test of a person’s leadership is the health of the organization when the organizer is gone,” he writes (143). How does one ensure that good spiritual leadership will continue? By reproducing leaders, all the while recognizing that leaders are not ultimately what the church needs. Instead, the church needs “saints and servants,” a need that reminds us of the spiritual dimension of leadership that runs throughout this book.
The book closes with two chapters that list various perils the leader faces (egotism, jealousy, popularity, infallibility, etc.) and leadership lessons from the life of Nehemiah.
Why I Changed My Mind About “Spiritual Leadership”
I first read Spiritual Leadership almost a decade ago. During my initial encounter with Sanders’ work here, I was relatively unimpressed. At that time, I wrote about the book not living up to the hype or the glowing reviews on the back cover.
The second time has been different, perhaps because I have some years of ministry and leadership under my belt and have learned many of these insights through experience. The longer I have been involved in ministry, the more I recognize Sanders’ insights to be basic and beneficial.
The strength of Sanders’ book is its wide range of influences. I enjoy reading about leaders who have had significant influence and yet are not as well known today. Many of the names mentioned here are from Christian leaders a century ago, and yet their insights ring true even today. Sanders gives a high-level view of what spiritual leadership looks like, and this is the major strength of his book.
The weakness of this book is due more to its format than to its content. Because the book was put together as a series of talks that were transcribed and compiled into chapters, it is uneven in places. At times, the book is repetitious. Jealousy is warned against as a “peril of leadership” in one chapter and then warned against as one of the “tests of leadership” in another.
There are several areas where Sanders asserts things as self-evident when they may, in fact, be contested. His description of friendship leads the reader to assume that great leadership demands an extroverted personality, and his description of the apostle Paul as a “gregarious man” (70) seems somewhat out of place, since one could make the case that his method of discipleship and friendship favors introversion.
Another assertion is in the section on prevailing prayer, where Sanders’ treatment could give the impression that unanswered prayer is always the result of broken fellowship, when the reality of God’s lack of responsiveness may be more complex. Also, in the chapter on time, Sanders’ zealous warnings against wasting our days could lead some to assume a life of perpetual work is what is required, without a proper balance of rest and recreation.
Overall, Spiritual Leadership is a classic for developing spiritual leadership. Its brevity and accessibility, along with its appeal to Scripture and examples of great leaders throughout history, make it a terrific place to begin reading about the uniqueness of Christian leadership. This is a book that gives the reader a good perspective on life and leadership and directs the reader’s passion to the glory of God and the good of His church.