Letting the Spirit Lead

In Chicago Mission Center (warning: site is out of date – we’re working on it) of the Community of Christ, congregational leaders have come together to work on on some key areas that they feel are critical for new life and direction.  One of these three areas is Spiritual Leadership.

What does this mean?  In my mind, it starts with the basic idea that God’s Spirit is the head of the church – wherever it’s gathered.  It means, God’s Holy Spirit – the very Spirit of Christ-with-us – is the organizing principle of our lives as disciples, congregations, even as a denomination.  This belief in the Spirit’s leadership has deep roots in Community of Christ history.  No matter where that history has gone – sometimes prophetically forward, sometimes embarrassingly and tragically off track – this conviction that God’s Spirit still communes with us and gives us direction today is central to our faith as a historic people.  This means that a tremendous burden and adventure is promised to everyone who walks with the movement of the Spirit: every disciple, every pastor, each congregational leader, all mission center leaders, and even leaders of our international church.  That burden and adventure is one of ongoing possibilities, risk, and discernment.  Letting the Spirit lead challenges us to put popular ideas, political rhetoric, age-old dogmas, and personal agendas in proper perspective…and let the Spirit lead.

God’s Spirit is always already doing something amidst us and within us.  God’s Spirit is always already at work and present in some way.  Our responsibility, as disciples and leaders, is to proclaim the good news God is here and bear witness to how God’s reign is working in and around us.  Sometimes disturbing and disorienting, God’s reign breaks in to open us up, to share and act in vulnerable honesty on what we see God is doing amidst everything we feel, think, and see.  This is a huge challenge.  But, it is also a profound and promising way to live:  To believe God is always moving amidst the divisive and confused ways of our inner lives and our world.

Believing in a God who came down from the heavens and into the world to dwell means we can’t demonize the world or permanently draw away from it.  This is God’s creation – what God so loved.  (John 3:16)  However, we can join the Spirit of God always already working in the world, walking in the streets and showing itself through the simple words of children, the wisdom of those old and forgotten, the hearts of mourners seeking justice, and the visions of poets and prophets.

In Chicago Mission Center, I think there are some specific things we must consider in our hope to let the Spirit lead. The following are my own reflections and recommendations for how to get out from underneath the weight of inertia, indifference, and impasse that flows from our fear of conflict, which keeps us personally and our congregations searching for new life and new energy.  They are not a recipe, but I dare say, they are sign posts on the journey through the wilderness – the wilderness we can get out of only if the Spirit leads.

Yes.  Think Exodus.

1.  Dwell, again, in Scripture. Our scriptures are not a resource of inerrant proof-texts for us to win an argument.  Nor, are they irrelevant books belonging to an ancient past.  Our scriptures are a well-spring of witness.  They are a diverse and dynamic collection of stories, poems, songs, legal codes, and proclamation about God’s doings in the lives of living people.  They are a testament of how God has moved and continues to move in the lives of both individuals, peoples, and nations.   Dwelling in them, we can find profound resources for recognizing the Spirit’s leadings amidst our personal lives, congregations, and even in the world at large.  Spending even 15 minutes a day repeating or reflecting on a few verses can have a tremendous impact on our congregational and spiritual lives.

2.  Practice Free Speech – Prayer:  It’s hard to remember to pray, let alone to pray as if God is there – right there – listening.  Some people are cynical about prayers that come only when we’re in trouble.  But, I think those prayers, often times, are the most precious.  They are often prayed when we are our most vulnerable, at our wits end, and truly at an impasse.  They are those prayers that are often the most honest – those prayers when we will bargain with God to be good, or go to church, or give to a charity – if only….

The lesson of these prayers, I think, is that they are the very heart of prayer.  We should pray this honestly about our needs, our concerns, and our helplessness to fix things on our own all the time.  We DO live in a world we cannot control, only nudge, nurture, and try to influence.   We are often too busy involved in plans, schedules, or personal agendas for effectiveness and success to remember the vulnerability of our lives and living situations.  When we’re in trouble, life is more real in some way, and so are our prayers.  We can speak the most freely in these situations because we need to.  God can take it.  Lay your heart open to God’s Spirit all the time.  Say what you really feel and really think, especially when you pray.

3.  Take Risks and Make Mistakes:  I see a lot of church-goers and “normal” people still held hostage by two deeply held beliefs.  Both of them get in the way – put us in the way! – of letting the Spirit lead.  Here they are:

One: Whether raising children, leading a congregation, or maneuvering in traffic, we believe that we can be safe if we make the right decision and do the right thing.


Raising kids, you can follow every intuition or the latest research and you’ll still botch it up.  Same with driving.  Use your turn signal, look twice, you can still have an accident.

It’s the same with spiritual leadership.  You can apply the truest doctrine, the most obvious common sense, or the latest and greatest congregational resource.  It may go terribly awry.   You may find yourself no closer than you were before to the perfection you believed was possible if you only…did the right thing.   There is no such thing.   Spiritual leadership is a relationship, not a recipe.

This leads me to the second false belief.

Two:  We live in a customer-driven world and consumer culture.  This logic has slowly seeped into most of our spiritual lives and congregations without us even realizing it because we believe it ourselves.  We believe in customer-satisfaction!  Why shouldn’t it be the measure of all things?  Here is how it works into our heads as spiritual leaders:  I’m moving in the right direction if people are happy.

Not true.

Following the Spirit’s lead on something important does not always make everyone happy.  Spiritual leadership is not about satisfied customers.  It cannot be tested by universal agreement.  In fact, Old Testament prophets were often charged by God to go against the public consensus.  This takes our discussion about taking risks and making mistakes to a deeper level for a minute.

The Community of Christ is a movement that rests on the principle of consensus.  It’s plainly stated in the Administrator’s Handbook on the first few pages, and goes back to our roots as a movement of dissidents.    As a people, we are charged to live in the creative tension that almost always exists between the Spirit’s leadings and the consensus of the people.  This is the tension of prophetic community.

There’s a misconception about consensus, however, that is often at play whenever a congregation or other spiritual community is trying to come together.  Consensus is NOT agreement. It is not, “We all like this!”  or “I completely agree!”  Consensus follows from the general question, “Is this something I can live with?”; “Is this something I can be open to?”  Consensus is the commitment together to struggle together. This is all it can ever be in a spiritual community where all are free to come and to leave.

The challenge of letting the Spirit lead, then, is that spiritual leaders have to stand in the gap when everyone doesn’t or won’t agree.  Sometimes, this means letting people leave and protest.   This is part of leadership and coming to consensus.   Following the Spirit’s lead binds us to trust in Christ-with-us.  This is the promise of taking risks.  The promise of Christ-with-us is what opens the soul to trust.  Consensus is the rule that allows us, corporately, to take those risks.

What deeply hurts or even damages a community or congregation is the assumption that agreement is the only thing members can live with.  This is the death of consensus…when agreement is confused with consensus and the community can only work together is everyone is happy.   This is the logic of customer-satisfaction taken to its highest degree.  It rises to religious dimension in church.

The paralysis that this confusion can instill in a congregation can be as painful as it is dramatic.  It can rob a congregation that wants everyone happy usually can’t stand any conflict.  Without even recognizing it, it begins to struggle like a business that has to keep all its customers, or it dies.   In this scenario, a congregation and its leaders are barred from the risks necessary in discerning the Spirit’s movement, as well as the promised peace that comes from struggling with faithfulness.

When we are not grounded in dwelling in scripture and study, and not laid open and made vulnerable in the free speech of prayer, we often need – sometimes deeply need – the agreement or appreciation of others to fill in the gaps of our self-confidence.  Spiritual leadership, however, challenges us to a deeper relationship with ourselves and others.  It requires us to take risks and go beyond the surface of agreement.   To dance with the Spirit, to let the Spirit lead in that dance, is to surrender to making mistakes.  Consensus is the principle that guides us in that walk together.   To journey with Christ requires some kind of consensus because to walk with Christ requires we give something up of ourselves in order to seek greater movement of the Spirit in our lives.

Wow.  This is a long post.  But, I felt the need to write it today.