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  • Adam Embry

Pastoral Leadership and Spiritual Formation

One of my favorite passages on pastoral ministry has always been 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12. The passage isn’t a detailed list of the qualifications of ministry like 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, but rather a description of a life dedicated to the gospel and a church. Paul had godly motives for ministry, refusing to be impressive like false apostles or philosophers of his day. The ministry didn’t belong to him; it was entrusted to him by God. He was a gentle man, affectionate for the people, wanting to not only teach them the gospel but give his life to them in relationship. He was a hard working pastor, not wanting to abuse pastoral authority but rather act as a kind father to his spiritual children. All of these traits – godly motives, gentleness, hard working – are qualities that should characterize the ministry. This truly is a wonderful ministry passage to meditate on and seek to model.

So when I saw an article in Biola University’s Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care on 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12, I knew I had to read it. The article focuses on the role of leadership in the formation of spiritual character. How do pastors lead the church in the formation of spiritual character? That’s a question worth asking and answering. Truls Akerlund at the Norwegian School of Leadership & Theology asks two questions to evaluate the role of leadership in spiritual formation. First, what is Paul’s goal regarding spiritual formation? Paul’s goal in 2:1-12 isfor the Thessalonians to know how to live lives worthy of God, who calls us into his kingdom and glory. The second question is what kind of leadership does Paul suggest and demonstrate to promote this goal of spiritual formation? Arkerlund argues that modeling, adaptability, and the development of relationships are the essential ingredients of the kind of leadership Paul suggests and personally demonstrates. Since Paul encouraged others in the Christian community to observe and learn from this model of ministry (5:12-13), I want to take note of these three aspects myself and share them here.

Modeling the gospel is one of the key strategies of spiritual formation. Modeling the gospel was needed because the Thessalonians had left their previous lifestyle of idolatry (1:9) and are now kingdom citizens (1:10; 2:12). Where will believers see how to live life worthy of their new king and kingdom? They should see it in their spiritual leaders. They need to be resocialized, as Akerlund call it, because they have left a life of paganism and now follow Christ. Here’s the important lesson for the leader and laity alike: “The crux for Paul in this regard is the close connection between the content of the gospel and the conduct of its servants – as the integrity of the message is tied together with the truthfulness of the messenger.” The leader’s life practically shows what living a new life in Christ looks like. Akerlund explains, “According to Paul, ecclesial leadership entails demonstration and emulation of life and conduct rather than mere transfer of certain beliefs.” Paul’s example demonstrates his instruction.

Adaptability is demonstrated by Paul’s approach to meet the Thessalonian’s various spiritual situations. Sometimes they needed the tender affection expressed by a nursing mother (2:7), while at other times they needed the loving concern of a father (2:11-12). The positive qualities of maternal gentleness were held in esteem in Paul’s day, so Paul modeled that in how he cared for them. And as fathers were expected to shape the social life of the family, so too did Paul adapt to redirect the family when it needed exhortation. Paul learned to be adaptable because ministry is personal. He reminded them that “each one” of them were instructed by him (2:11), implying that his pastoral care was not merely public but individual, as he met with church families “from house to house” (Acts 20:20). It was personally being with believers that he learned to be adaptable by “encouraging, comforting, and urging” them in their various spiritual conditions (2:12). Paul’s parental authority modeled adaptability so that he exhorted everyone to be adaptable, as well: “admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” (5:14). Pastoral ministry needs to be adaptable to meet people where they are. It’s never “one size fits all.”

Pastoral relationships with believers are needed to help cultivate new family relationships within the church. Leadership that values relationships exhibits personal care. Paul’s relationships were parental, but he didn’t invoke his authority to get his way. Instead, he sought to persuade, encourage, and care for them (2:12). He wanted them to respond voluntarily to his leadership and not feel manipulated. By relating to the people this way, Paul helped the church shape a new identity that contrasted the pagan world. He cultivated a sense of family belonging rather than emphasizing his pastoral status as their leader. If authority is emphasized, it’s seen in its parental care and quality rather than its inherent parental status. Pastoral authority is commended (5:12), but it’s noticeable because of labor and love.

To conclude, Paul’s leadership in 2:1-12 demonstrates how leadership impacts spiritual formation in a church. Leadership should model Christ-likeness. Leadership should be adaptable, being follower-centered, in that relationship skills need to be cultivated out of love and concern. Leadership should be relational because “it is only by being together and opening up one’s life for one another that transformation happens. It follows that ecclesial leadership extends beyond programs or techniques, making the total shape of the leader’s life the key factor for effective spiritual direction.” For this reason, “mission and spiritual formation exist in a symbiotic relationship.” Leaders who pursue a life worthy of God will lead others to do so, as well.

Adam Embry is a follower of Christ, husband to Charlotte, and father to six children. He has served in various churches and ministries. He is currently helping to lead the Calvary Institute at Calvary Church in Englewood, Colorado. He is a graduate of Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

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