Practicing Greatness: 7 Disciplines of Extraordinary Spiritual Leaders

Over the weekend I read Reggie McNeal’s book Practicing Greatness. I had it on my shelf for years and for some reason Friday night Katie was out so I made some coffee, put on some music and started reading. I was grabbed immediately.

Here is the short review:  If you are a leader of any kind, you need to buy this book. I would easily put this in my “Top 10 leadership book” list. It is that good.

Still not convinced? Keep reading.

You might think from the title that the idea of being great and being a spiritual leader shouldn’t or don’t go hand in hand. Shouldn’t leaders be humble? Obscure? Especially spiritual ones? What McNeal points out is that “greatness in the kingdom of God is a journey toward humility.” The problem that McNeal points out and I agree is that too many spiritual leaders and churches are mediocre. They don’t aspire to be great. They don’t aspire to use all the gifts and talents that God has given them. And that is a sin. Greatness is not just about character. It’s also about effectiveness.

So what is a great spiritual leader?

Great spiritual leaders bless people. Depending on their sphere of influence, this blessing may extend to those in their organization, their spiritual tribe, a region, an entire nation, the whole human race – whoever populates their leadership constellation. Great spiritual leaders are not just given to great issues; they are given to people. In the end, this capacity to bless is the deciding category that elevates them to greatness in spiritual leadership…Leaders who achieve greatness are not only blessings; they feel blessed. They count themselves blessed by those they lead and serve. They are blessed by their colleagues. They are blessed by their leadership team. They are blessed by their friends. They often enjoy the blessing of family. Most of all, they feel blessed by God…These leaders are marked by gratitude. They consider leadership a privilege. Not unaware of its burdens, they are grateful for their assignment. Even though the price of greatness may and often does include emotional, physical, and spiritual stress, they count themselves fortunate to have the opportunity to partner with God in his redemptive mission in the world. Though the road to greatness exacts even their lives, they would not swap the journey for any lesser pursuits. They cannot imagine, in the end, doing anything else.

But how do you choose greatness? Does every leader choose it?

You are faced with the option of greatness as a spiritual leader. You can choose, as countless others have done, to settle for less. If you do, you die a premature death. And you rob others of the chance to live a better life. If you decide to go for greatness, it will cost you everything you have and are. You will have to surrender your life. You will no longer belong to your personal dreams and petty agendas. Your days and years will belong to the One who believes in you so much he has risked his agenda on you. You will die first, only to discover this is the way to life.

What McNeal does it he lays out what we need to do to be great leaders. He pinpoints 7 practices, disciplines as it were:

  • Self-awareness:  knowing what you are good at and not good at. Knowing how to maximize your strengths. Knowing why you react to things a certain way, why some people rub you the wrong way, why you are prone to certain sins or certain things attract your attention.
  • Self-management: How you manage your life, health, marriage, mind, learning, body, sexuality, relationships, time. No one but the leader can manage it. Whenever you say, “I don’t have time for that, it is because you haven’t made time for that.”
  • Self-development: If you are going to develop and grow, what is the plan. The old adage is true:  “Leaders are learners.” Who will you learn from? How will you learn? What will you learn and grow in? For me, I set a goal of reading at least 1 book a week. When I run or have long drives, I listen to podcasts, sermons, etc. Maximize your time. Too many people waste time and don’t manage themselves and they miss out on growth. Great leaders differ from good leaders, in part, because of the degree to which they have developed and built on their strengths. These leaders have figured out that their best shot at making their greatest contribution to the world is for them to get better at what they are already good at. So they have decided to focus on their talent – identifying it and developing it.
  • Mission: For many leaders this is the “call” on their lives, but that isn’t it. This was one of the most helpful points of the book. Your mission is that thing you can’t stop talking about, as a pastor it is the thing you always preach about. That is the thing God created you to do. Do it. He called you because he wired you that way. Great spiritual leaders can articulate their passion. They know what makes their heart beat faster. They know what they do that enables them to feel the smile of God. They move toward their passion. They feed it. They are intentional and alive!
  • Decision making: Pretty self explanatory, but the questions he asks in this chapter are crucial in terms of making decisions and evaluating decisions to make better ones of the future. The bottom line is that great leaders are not paralyzed. They are able to make decisions, often with little information, but they are not paralyzed. Great leaders know how to make decisions, when to make decisions, and what decisions need to be made. They also, and this was profound, they make sure they are answering the right question. Too many decisions solve the wrong problem.
  • Belonging: Leadership is lonely, but it doesn’t have to be as lonely as leaders make it out to be. Relationships and community take work, time and effort. It won’t be easy, it might hurt along the way, but you have to belong to thrive as a leader. You must belong in your marriage and family as that is the life blood for a leader if they are married.
  • Aloneness: This is choosing to set aside time to be alone, to refresh, to walk through tough times and deal with the junk in your life. He highlights the wilderness experience of many leaders in the Bible. In fact, he has a whole book on this discipline called A Work of Heart, which is also worth reading if you are in a wilderness time of God shaping you and working on you and you are struggling to have clarity about how to move forward with something. No leader goes through wilderness unchanged. The transformation may be in the leader’s mission or person, or both. Usually, both life and ministry are altered. Great leaders would not exchange the wilderness experience for anything. It is often in the wilderness they come to their truest understanding of who they are and what they want to accomplish. In the end they find themselves grateful that God would grace them so profoundly.

As I said, a great, fast read. A ton to chew on that I will go back to. I’m taking a retreat day tomorrow and I’m looking forward to working through these practices to see how I can grow in different areas.

2 thoughts on “Practicing Greatness: 7 Disciplines of Extraordinary Spiritual Leaders

  1. Pingback: A Work of Heart: How God Shapes Spiritual Leaders « My World

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