Being & Building Followers & Friends of Jesus
Early in my work as a pastor, I often found maintaining a regular consistent prayer life a real challenge. I’ve since realized that one reason was I didn’t see the connection between praying and leading. Praying seemed a mostly personal discipline of my faith. In my role as a leader, I tried to be faithful to opening leadership meetings in prayer and to praying before I did something for Jesus. That brief moment I spent praying at the beginning or before any kingdom work betrayed how little I valued the role of prayer in my leadership. At best, I saw prayer as preparatory to kingdom leadership rather than as an organic and essential engine for such leadership.
I’m not the only one who has misunderstood the role of prayer in ministry. I’ve spoken to friends working in a church or ministry that made it clear that prayer was something to be done on one’s own time, probably in the morning before leaving for the office. No one had ever said to them, “We’re not paying you to pray. We’re paying you to manage programs and to make things happen.” Obviously that would sound wrong to most ears, but that message seemed all too clearly implied. And what a contrast to leaders of the first-century church. Luke wrote that as the practical needs of people were multiplying and requiring more and more time and attention, the church leaders saw to it that mature and wise members of the community were attentive to those needs so they—as leaders—could continue to give their attention to “prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4).
In my early days of ministry, I would have focused only on the “word” side of that statement and understood it primarily in terms of studying the Scriptures for the purpose of teaching or preaching. That is certainly appropriate, as far as it goes, but I now understand “the ministry of the word” to mean that key leaders in the Christian community must be men and women who listen well to God in interactive communion with him. Pastors and other Christian leaders need to have a sense of where God is leading and what God is saying to his people in a particular place and at a particular time. This sense—crucial to effective ministry as we guide real people to live simultaneously in this world and the reality of God’s kingdom—is acquired through the ministry of the word and prayer. This kind of prayer is the sort of thing I imagine Epaphras doing when I read that he was “tireless in his prayers for [the Colossian Christians], praying that you’ll stand firm, mature and confident in everything God wants you to do” (Col 4:12 The Message). Prayer isn’t an activity apart from the work of ministry; prayer is a primary element of the actual work of ministry. And the only thing that can really get in the way of my engaging in this ministry is . . . me.
Leadership prayer is vital to being a person of godly influence, so it is always best as a first response rather than a last resort. After all, for any number of reasons (sin, logistics, priorities, commitments, and so on), I can’t always speak or act in ways I want to, but I can always pray—anytime and anywhere. This sort of prayer for the good of others is a beautiful way to live out Jesus’ great commandment to “love one another.” This kind of prayer also awakens me to how significantly my praying for others affects how I relate to them and, in whatever way God has given me, how I might influence them for kingdom good.
L E A R N I N G T O W O R K W I T H G O D
As a leader, I want to learn to follow the example of the Good Shepherd who “lives to intercede” for his people (Heb 7:25). As I abide in Jesus, I have the same access to the Father’s ear that he does. I am able to interact with the Father in prayer and seek the good of those I care about, knowing that my prayer mysteriously opens a door to a greater experience of God’s measureless love.
I think of Jesus’ pattern of withdrawing from the crowd and even from his disciples to pray. I suspect in those times of prayer Jesus was remembering not only the Father’s love for him expressed at his baptism but also the Father’s love for the Twelve, the other followers, and the crowds who surrounded him day by day. Jesus withdrew from the crowds for the sake of the crowds. When Jesus was in prayer, he remembered that the Father’s words matter far more than the words of the crowd, whether they were shouting “Hosanna!” or “Crucify him!” It was as though the Father said to Jesus as he prayed, “When you are in the wilderness, you are my beloved Son. When the crowds cheer for you and praise you, you are my beloved Son. When the crowds turn on you and cry out for your execution, you are my beloved Son.”
I want to be a leader who follows this pattern of prayer we see in Jesus’ life. When it comes to the rhythm of contemplation and action in the life of a leader, I think more of us have tended to neglect contemplation in favor of action rather than the reverse. We live in such an outward-focused leadership world. That’s why I have sought to integrate contemplation and leadership over the last twenty-five years. Prayer really is someone we are with more than something we do. Prayer—being with Jesus—is a leader’s greatest source of influence. Therefore, prayer must never be a merely peripheral activity for leaders.
Consider the wisdom of spiritual writer and director Baron Friedrich von Hügel in his declaration that the focus of ministry is really on helping souls:
I wonder if you have seen how much you will be called on to help people—to help souls. The golden rule is, to help those we love to escape from us; and never try to begin to help people, or influence them, till they ask, but wait for them. Souls are never dittos. The souls thus to be helped are mostly at quite different stages from our own, or they have quite a different attrait. One should wait silent for those who do not open out to us, who are not intended, perhaps, ever to be helped by us—except by our prayers (the best of all helps). We must be tolerant and patient, too, with those we can, and ought to help. This difference in souls wakes us up, and makes us more sensitive and perceptive.
I like the gentleness of the approach to helping others that von Hügel describes. There can be violence when we assume that we know what another person needs. This is where learning to listen to God on behalf of others can help us learn to cooperate with what God may already be doing in their lives. Making prayer for others a primary activity in our spiritual leadership enables us to be a more effective partner with the Spirit regarding the work of God in the lives of his people. God is the master of souls, not me. But I can learn how to work with God to serve, bless, and care for those entrusted to my care.
Jean-Jacques Olier, a seventeenth-century French priest and spiritual director, spoke simply and powerfully about the role of prayer in ministry:
Without personal prayer, our ministry will be empty, our words meaningless, our [ministry] totally fruitless. Without prayer we shall never be able to support souls in their weaknesses. They have given themselves to us as those upon whom they may trust, but without prayer we would be the cause of their falls, since they will not find in us the strength and light they need. We being dark and weak ourselves, it is only by the means of prayer that we can be enlightened and made strong in Christ Jesus. All the failures which arise in the direction of souls come from the fact that directors do not apply themselves to the holy exercise of prayer.
It would help immensely if we saw our influence—our leadership— as the care of souls. Our most lasting influence in the lives of others is to enable them to become whole and holy in all the ways Jesus invites them. We can’t do that without prayer. There are no shortcuts or surefire techniques apart from our vital and life-giving communion with God in prayer. This is the influence that will still matter to us centuries and millennia from now.
W H A T G O O D I S P R A Y E R ?
“In prayer we discover what we already have,” noted Thomas Merton, Trappist monk and author, toward the end of his life. He continued: “You start from where you are and you deepen what you already have, and you realize you are already there. We already have everything but we don’t know it and don’t experience it. Everything has been given to us in Christ. All we need is to experience what we already possess.” Merton’s point has much to say about our leadership prayer. In the ongoing work we do in our conversational relationship with God, we find out that we already have all we need to do every good thing God has given us to do in our lives, our relationships, and our work. We live in a kingdom where, if we seek it first, everything else necessary and good comes to us.
So, practically speaking, I find that when prayer for others is consistent and well established, I experience holy energy rising up from within me to do good work. Extended seasons of praying for people I serve in some role or leadership relationship ends up being very motivating. My compassion for people as well as my wisdom about how to help seem to increase. There also seem to be more divine surprises in my interactions with others when I’ve invested significant time holding them prayerfully in God’s presence.
I’ve also noticed a fruitful connection between focusing my prayer on particular people and then finding in myself greater interest, curiosity, compassion, and engagement with those people. When my day-to-day prayer for particular people grows thin, however, I also find that my heart’s inclination toward them and my interest in them diminish. Bringing people into God’s presence through intercessory prayer keeps alive and vital their place in my heart. When prayer is thin, love is thin.
This practice raises my kingdom energy and engagement level. I have more kingdom interest in others rather than seeing them in relation to my own kingdom. I find it easier to engage in my roles and relationships of influence with the confident posture of a servant rather than from a needy and authoritarian posture. I find that when I am not praying much for others, not much flows through me toward them for their good—not much holy concern, not much spiritual interest, not much joyful attention. But when I am praying often and well for others, I find that I actually experience rivers of living water flowing from those who trust in him, just as Jesus promised (Jn 7:38).
P R A Y E R M A K E S A D I F F E R E N C E
Another measurable fruit of praying for people is a practical one. Early in my ministry, I remember how often I would complain that I was just not good at remembering names, as though it were some unavoidable disability over which I was powerless. I knew of other pastors who seemed to have a limitless capacity for learning and recalling even the names of those who visited a service only once. As I began to embark on a way of ministry that was more oriented to the formation of people, I also began to pray in a more focused and intentional way for the people in my life—not just my family and close friends, but people who crossed my path in church gatherings or other social settings. I’m sure it won’t surprise you that I began to remember their names more easily. When I took time to remember prayerfully in God’s presence those who had been guests at a service, I found that a place opened up for them in my heart and in my memory. I remember what matters to me, and what matters to me—my treasure— is where my heart is, where my time is spent, where my attention tends to focus. I find a growing desire to invest my heart, time, and attention toward those whom God has called me to lead.
Also not surprising is that, rather than drawing energy away from and weakening my effectiveness, leadership rooted in prayer increases it. Put differently, as a Christian leader, I do not need to choose between living either a contemplative life or an active life. Author and pastor Eugene Peterson said it like this: “The contemplative life generates and releases an enormous amount of energy into the world—the enlivening energy of God’s grace rather than the enervating frenzy of our pride.” In its truest form, the contemplative life is not an escape from ministry but the living heart of it.
The contemplative life and the active life are complementary, not either-or. True contemplatives are vibrantly active in the work of the One they contemplate. And those who are truly active in kingdom work live in profound communion with the One with whom they do this work. Contemplation is the root to the tree of holy activity. Contemplation is the inhale to the exhale of godly ministry. Contemplation is the heart of holy leadership, and holy leadership is a fruit of deep-rooted contemplation. If we attempt to make contemplation and action a matter of mutually exclusive choice, our leadership will not be healthy or effective.
T H E N A T U R E O F L E A D E R S H I P P R A Y E R
I’ve sometimes called the sort of prayer I’m talking about here “leadership prayer.” How might I distinguish this from other types of prayer? Well, when someone has asked you to pray for them, what kinds of requests have they made? For what did they want you to pray? People ask me to pray for healing, financial concerns, and much-needed jobs. Usually, people hope to see a specific situation changed. How does this compare to how Paul prayed for the churches to whom he wrote? Let’s look at his prayer for his brothers and sisters in Thessalonica: “Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith” (1 Thess 3:10). Paul’s prayer focused more on the people’s inner life than on their outer life. His was more soul prayer than situation prayer. I like to think that this is how leaders pray for those they serve.
I want to pray for those I serve like Paul does. I want to focus on soul issues, on spiritual formation issues, on a person’s transformational relationship with Jesus! I want to live with—and live out—the realization that central to my leadership is praying that my beloved friends will grow in their relational knowledge of God together (Eph 1:17) and that their love for one another might increase
(Phil 1:9). I never want to underestimate the power God releases in people’s lives when I hold them in his presence and invite him to enable them to more fully embrace the truth of his great love for them and to then share that love with others freely and generously (Eph 3:16-19).
Leadership prayer is staying awake to God’s presence as I seek to serve his kingdom purposes in the world around me. At times a leader’s venue will be family—husband or wife, sons and daughters, father and mother. Too many times my closest relationships have been lived on unholy autopilot. She does this; you say that. You say that; he does this. We become unthinking, unreflective, unresponsive to one another; our hearts fall asleep. Likewise, my leadership can lag when my heart and mind are lulled to sleep by unreviewed habits. Praying for others keeps my heart awake and alert in my roles and relationships of influence. So leadership prayer is rooted in love, and love is fully awake.
Consider now another prayer of Paul for his friends in Thessalonica:
Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you. May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones. (1 Thess 3:11-13)
Paul did pray that God would work circumstances together so that he and his colleagues would be able to return to this young faith community at some point. That prayer is a little situational, but it is mostly Paul’s expression of his hope that he might further serve them in their newfound faith. Paul prayed with hope that they would have their hearts strengthened in the presence of God. He wanted them to be beyond full of love for brothers and sisters in Jesus as well as for everyone else in their lives. Paul prayed soul prayers. May we as leaders pray soul prayers so that those we serve might find grace that empowers, encourages, stimulates, and energizes them for every good thing God gives them to do.
In this way, prayer is more relational than transactional. There have been times, though, when I assumed that the important thing when I prayed was getting something to happen in a person’s life that might have little to do with that person’s heart. We could envision intercession as an opportunity to commune and interact with God about people who matter to us, who bother us, who interest us. Intercession is a conversational relationship with God for the benefit of others in our life.
Leadership prayer is also more person-focused than program-focused. Too often, though, I’ve focused my prayer on asking God to bless with success some meeting, service, gathering, service project, or initiative. That’s fine as far as it goes, but ultimately I am to be seeking to serve the actual people who attend these events I plan. It has made such a difference when I’ve focused my prayers on particular people I hope or expect to see at an event. I pray for people whom I believe will be present when I preach a sermon or teach a lesson. Praying for people feels very much like a kingdom activity. Then, when we finally gather, I have eyes to see what kingdom good might be possible.
Finally, leadership prayer aims to be more God-focused than me-focused. Perhaps that sounds like an odd thing to say. Isn’t prayer, by definition, my saying something to God, asking something of him?
Isn’t prayer God-oriented in its very essence? I suppose that’s true, but my prayers can sometimes become more focused on my worries than on seeking my faithful and trustworthy heavenly Father. Prayer has sometimes become only a self-centered admission of my shortcomings, line crossings, and failures without an honest entering into the presence of one who delights to show mercy (Mic 7:18) and longs to be gracious (Is 30:18). My requests can become half-hearted, self-deprecating hopes rather than humble, confident requests of a more-than-generous Father. Prayer is a reminder that I am not serving myself in ministry, but I am serving a heavenly King who chose me to do the work I do. I’ve been invited into a valued place in the King’s plan and purposes. In prayer I remember this fact and reorient myself to this reality. What an honor!
And what a difference it makes in my heart and my leadership when my prayers are more soul-focused than situation-focused, more relationship-focused than transaction-focused, more people-focused than program-focused, and more God-focused than me-focused!
Approaching God for others is blessed kingdom work that I regard as learning to be in communion with God on behalf of those I care about. I think of Paul’s counsel that we “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people” (Eph 6:18). We learn to join, moment by moment, with the intercession of God’s Spirit who is continually praying for us in harmony with the purposes of God for us (Rom 8:26-27). When my prayer for others shrinks to some weird perpetual Christmas wish list, I find prayer wearying—a clear indication that I’m praying from a posture of non-abiding.
Rather than talking with God from a position of connection with him, I’m launching my requests off toward a God who seems at quite a distance from me.
D Y I N G T O S E L F I N P R A Y E R
Leadership prayer is not merely expressing what I want as I sit in God’s presence; instead, it is often a kind of dying to what I think I want. This element of prayer is really more about our own spiritual formation than it is about improving any ministry situation. If all of us approached prayer as the practice of dying to ourselves and becoming more alive to God, we would see a majority of our personal struggles with prayer in a very different light. Another aspect of this dying to self is to ask ourselves, “Who in me is praying at this exact moment?” So often, it hasn’t really been the true me. God has made the person who is praying, but some mask or persona or voice I think God expects to hear from me is speaking to him. So many of our prayers—especially those we pray at the beginning of our spiritual journeys—are self-centered. We want things from God. We want to feel better, have more, see problems solved, be more important, and so on. As we awaken to God’s presence with us, our focus during prayer might, thankfully, move from a crass seeking of outward pleasures to a God-honoring seeking after inward character. We taste delight in God’s presence and realize we want more of that. We might even assume that the rich experience of the divine presence is proof positive that we’re already well on our way to dying to what is old within us. We might assume that these new feelings of closeness to God are evidence of profound transformation within us. But it’s just as possible that we’ve simply transferred our self-centered orientation from worldly pleasures to divine ones.
I’ve come to discover that my struggle in prayer tends to correspond to the degree that I am seeking to establish my identity through things I do and through what others say about me. This me is what Brennan Manning, in his book Abba’s Child, called the impostor, and this impostor often tries to take responsibility (and credit) for my leadership roles. Manning explained it this way:
Obviously, the impostor is antsy in prayer. He hungers for excitement, craves some mood-altering experience. He is depressed when deprived of the spotlight. The false self is frustrated because he never hears God’s voice. He cannot, since God sees no one there. Prayer is death to every identity that does not come from God. The false self flees silence and solitude because they remind him of death.
I become resistant to regular prayer when the impostor operates as primary identity because I don’t have my primary identity rooted in something real and God-given. If I am awake enough, I realize that my level of resistance to prayer is a sort of warning light on the dashboard of my leadership, making me aware of this misplaced sense of identity.
We may be mistaken if we assume that experiencing certain spiritual pleasures in prayer is evidence of our spiritual maturity. Much in all of us still needs to die. And as that happens, that old part of us can become attached to spiritual pleasures in place of physical ones. I think this is why God has sometimes withheld the pleasure of his presence or his felt blessing. Such spiritual pleasure might have become for me a means of nourishing something old in me rather than energizing the new person I am in Jesus.
S E A S O N S W I T H G O D
It can be disturbing when the honeymoon-like joys and passions of feeling God’s presence with us fade through no apparent fault or wrongdoing on our part. Where we once felt unconquerable and confident in our faith, we may begin to feel less certain. But what if these spiritual delights of youthful faith leave us not as a punishment but as a way of opening up space for something less dramatic and exciting but more substantial and sustainable? What if God is making room for a deep, calm peace, a sense of perfect rest in him? Those first gifts are withdrawn so that we might gain the self-knowledge that we were clinging to the gifts more than we were to God the giver. The continuance of those honeymoon emotions would not have served us well on the longer journey. They were like the first fruits of spring—an exciting new experience that must fade so that the calm, sunlit beauty of summer can replace it.
As we go on, we find that this new and peaceful stillness—our ability to rest in the Lord—has a charm all its own. It is just as joyful as the initial joy but richer in quality. We take great pleasure sinking into its depths! We acknowledge how good it has been to experience a more sober and reflective season since awakening more fully to the everlasting arms. We feel a deeper sense of satisfaction, a growing fullness of our hearts, like a deep pool filling with calm water. Appreciating that “in quietness and confidence is your strength” (Is 30:15 NLT), we may feel as if we have finally let go of self.
But our attachment to this pure and simple peace of God can be too much about ourselves: we might find we’re more focused on the peace of God than on the God of peace. And we never become fully aware of how deep this self-love runs until God begins to uproot it out of our hearts—a gardening job that we are utterly unable to perform on ourselves. When the digging begins, we find this deep sense of peace departing, and our journey with God takes us into a parched and lonely wilderness. Our heart feels uninspired and cold, our spiritual feelings are numbed, words of prayer don’t come easily, our mind is distracted, and our spirit feels faint. We don’t know what to do or how to respond to the arid season. Our self-confidence evaporates: “Why is my conversation with God so different? Did I do something?” Any sense of personal resourcefulness fades, and we feel powerless. God seems to have left the building, and we are left lonely and abandoned.
At this point so many followers of Jesus are tempted to give up on the journey of prayer. Earlier, this temptation grew out of mere human mood. Now we feel tempted because we see no good way forward. We recognize and feel the reality of our nakedness, weakness, waywardness, and deadness apart from God’s presence. We realize we will find no rest in our old ways of thinking, choosing, and living. Furthermore, God seems more distant than before we began to trust him. Yet this moment that seems so empty is actually the moment of our salvation, the moment when God is actually surrounding us with the purifying and healing presence of love. The cloud that seems to block God’s presence is actually the shadow of God’s hand. The abyss of emptiness that gapes within us is a promise of a greater fullness than we can imagine. If we feel we are being diminished, it is only so that we might be all the more enlarged. God withdraws his felt presence from us, reminding us of the simple reality that without him, we really can’t do a thing that matters. God desires to enlarge our heart’s capacity for love and holy longing, enabling us to receive the fuller revelation of himself that he longs to impart. If we are willing to walk through the wilderness of these spiritually dry and dark seasons with patience and humility, if we offer our dull and empty heart to God in a simple response of love, we will experience the wonders that God works in those desert legs of our journey.
Such spiritual transformation—the result of sustained prayer—has a powerful impact on the work of spiritual leadership. So many of the self-centered motivations that inspired us, motivated us, even drove us begin to fade—and of course this change can be disorienting and disturbing. In fact, as we begin this new way of being, we might be tempted to say that praying has taken the edge off of our leadership. But what if that edge was not a holy thing after all? We might just discover that it is possible to be compelled by the love of God rather than be driven by less noble, more self-serving motives.
Let me close this chapter in a way that I hope is fitting—with a prayer.
Jesus, thank you for the gifts of my many relationships and roles where I can—by your grace—influence people to follow you more wholeheartedly. Forgive me for those times when I have engaged in those relationships more for my personal benefit than for your kingdom good. Thank you for your patient and persistent work within me as I learn to live my life in prayerful companionship with God. Thank you for enabling me to see my friends, my work, my life from a holier, truer vantage point. Continue your transforming work in me, that I might become the person you created me to be so that you can use me to bless people for their good and your great glory. Amen.
An Unhurried Leader, Chapter 9, “Prayer As Primary Influence”
Taken from An Unhurried Leader by Alan Fadling. Copyright (c) 2017 by Alan J. Fadling. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com