It was the great Puritan John Owen who said, “A minister may fill his pews, his communion roll, the mouths of the public, but what that minister is on his knees in secret before God Almighty, that he is and no more.”
What John Owen had right almost 400 years ago still rings true today. Christian leadership is a public service that begins with private worship. While every leader has unique, God-ordained passions and purposes, there is one common denominator that defines every leader in the same way: Who they are behind closed doors.
Who a leader is outside of the public eye is who they really are – no more, no less.
No matter how hard a leader may try, they can’t fake their private life. In fact, it can even be argued that there is no such thing as a private life at all, only a variety of environments in which a leader operates. God sees everything, a spouse knows them better than anyone next to God, and kids are quick to catch on when parents behave one way in public and another way at home. There’s no getting around the fact that who a leader is in their private life is where the rubber meets the road. A healthy private life means a healthy leader.
Many underestimate the powerful role that a leader’s private life plays in determining the success of their leadership. To take that even further, it’s safe to say that there is no real success in ministry unless the private life of a leader is healthy.
Truth and time go hand-in-hand so what will eventually begin to manifest in public is just the evidence of who a leader is in private.
Here are three private areas that will define a Christian leader, for better or worse:
- A Leader’s Private Devotion
A leader may pray eloquent prayers in public, and be able to rattle off quotes from Charles Spurgeon, but true spiritual leadership is ultimately defined by the private devotion that takes place when no one is around to “oooh” and “awe” at their spirituality. A leader’s job may be thriving, their friends may envy their oratorical abilities, and many people may even be swept up by their charisma – but all of that can be an empty shell if private devotion to Christ is not their highest priority. Know this, a leader will not stand the test of time who does not spend ample time on their knees and time in God’s word. Knowing the latest LifeWay research statistics and being articulate on topics like church-trends and growth strategies will prove useless if a leader is not proficient in prayer and the Scriptures. Christian leaders are not called to be experts on culture. They are called to be emulators of Christ.
- A Leader’s Private Marriage
Every Christian leader is happily married on Sunday morning. Men talk openly about being the head of the home and flex their spiritual muscles with Bible in hand. Women pick out the perfect outfit and smile with glee; reminiscent of a woman who had a flawless week “respecting hubby.” Her Instagram posts are confirmation of that. It’s the picture of public perfection! But is that always the real story? The way a leader’s “first ministry” operates throughout the week will define who they really are – not merely a Sunday (or social media) show. While a leader’s marriage should be progressing and growing in Christ – which will result in a good example publicly – faking perfection when things are falling apart is dangerous because it lacks the diligence God instructs Christian couples to have when it comes to working on their marriage. If a leader will not take the steps needed in order to nurture their marriage, they are no leader at all. A leader’s marriage must be marked by a deep sacrifice of self, a calendar with dates that match biblical convictions, honesty about weakness, confession of sin, and involvement of qualified church leaders or counseling when needed. A leader’s marriage may look good on the outside (and maybe it really is doing well), but how we live Ephesians 5:22-33 behind closed doors is what truly matters.
- A Leader’s Private Conversations
Leaders are constantly communicating both privately and publicly. This means that a lot of words come out that can’t be taken back. Prudence is crucial for every private conversation and taming the tongue is especially necessary in familiar environments where leaders are most comfortable. A leader who “lets it fly” is a disaster waiting to happen. Many leaders use crude language in the name of authenticity but are doing nothing more than creating a locker-room mentality within the church. Furthermore, many leaders use manipulative language with staff members for their own gain. This could be sexual, or it could be production driven – pitting them against each other to spark competition in the name of ministry advancement. This is not becoming of a true Christian leader, though it is how many churches run the business-side of church. Since when did Jesus promise to build His church through leadership styles reminiscent of corporate sharks and verbally aggressive CEO’s? When it comes to frustrations, a wise leader does not shame others. He replaces “venting” publicly (aka: gossip), with “vetting” (aka: prayer) privately with Jesus. Taking every attitude, thought, or frustration to Christ in prayer is the best way for a leader to control the tongue in conversations. Sometimes it’s best to just use the abbreviation: FHL. It means, “Few, honest, and loving”, and refers to the words we ought to use if we’re experiencing some tension in our day-to-day life. Ministry is tough and temptation is everywhere, but leaders have to learn to manage their mouth behind the scenes.
There are numerous more that could be added to this list but all will point to the same truth. A leader’s private life is make or break for their public leadership.
Sound like a tough task? It is. That’s why a leader must depend on God’s grace to be at work within their life above all else. It is a responsibility that should cause every pastor, elder, small group leader, deacon, teacher, parent, layman, or aspiring leader to remain humbly on their knees before God – begging that His power be at work in their prayer life, their marriage, and their mouth.
Verses for further study & reflection:
Devotion: Psalm 1; Ephesians 6:10-20; Colossians 2:6-8
Marriage: Ephesians 5:22-33; Colossians 3:18-25; 1 Peter 3:1-8;
Conversation: Proverbs 15:28; Ephesians 4:29; Colossians 4:6; James 3