The block of marble that became Michelangelo’s larger-than-life sculpture of David lay almost untouched in the cathedral storehouse in Florence for decades. Two other sculptors had attempted to make something of it before it was offered to Michelangelo. One started working with it, but soon quit because his talents lay in more delicate work. The great Leonardo da Vinci turned down an opportunity to transform it, preferring to pursue another project more suited to his taste. [i. When offered the opportunity, Michelangelo agreed to do what others could not. He built a shed around the block of marble, which he kept locked at all times. For three years he labored to transform it from its natural state to an eternal work of art. At first Michelangelo examined the marble minutely to see what poses it would accommodate. He made sketches and models of various possible creations and then tested his ultimate image in a small-scale wax version of his final result. [ii] Finally he picked up his mallet and chisel and began to work.
When Michelangelo looked at that block of marble, he did not see what it couldn’t be; he saw what it could be. He didn’t reject it because it was flawed. He saw a way to work around the flaws, even to incorporate them into his design. What he did was so great, even evident flaws could not scar its beauty. There are drill marks in David’s thick curled hair, some of the original quarry marks are on the very top of the head, and one can see traces of the cuttings made by an earlier sculptor who, forty years before, failed to do what Michelangelo did: create one of the greatest masterpieces of all time. Michelangelo, the sculptor of David, is a picture of what pastors do as sculptors of the soul if we can but see what so many others have missed.
Michelangelo’s work on his sculpture, David, is a picture of our work in leader formation. It is our magnificent privilege to be God’s instruments in sculpting the souls of His people through leader formation, as drawn from the principles of spiritual formation.
Spiritual formation is an old practice that is made new in our times. We are living in a time of exploding spiritual hunger for the reality of knowing Christ in the fullness of His being, and this means we are part of a privileged few in all of history who live in such an era. Our target is to be Christ’s hands in sculpting spiritual Davids, men and women of such intense spiritual beauty they will show Christlikeness in such undeniable ways that others will seek to be like them.
What is our purpose in leader formation? To glorify God by helping others and ourselves become Christlike through the Holy Spirit’s enablement. To become the kind of people today as Christ’s body who do what Christ did through His body when on earth: seek and save the lost (Lk. 19:10 + Mt. 28:19-20).
However, as Dallas Willard points out, historically spiritual formation has often degenerated into a selfish strangeness, a self-centered personal cul-de-sac of spirituality.
We cannot allow spiritual formation to become an end in itself, the development of spiritually nice people who make no discernable difference in their world.
Here is my point. We must have a purpose beyond making people good – they must be good for a purpose.
Some general observations concerning leader development include:
Observation #1: You form leaders the way God forms you – by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Observation #2: There are two chief requirements for the leader developer. He knows and understands what God does to develop others and he consciously discerns and responds to the ways of God in developing him. This means his chief prayer is Psalm 25:4.
Observation #3: Self-awareness through God-understanding and delighting in doing God’s will is true wisdom and maturity for the leader developer.
This demands insight into four realities:
- Tests and trials -- James 1
- Unwanted grace -- Jonah
- Brokenness -- Peter -- John 1:42; Mark 1:16; Luke 22:61-63; John 21:15ff
- Rest -- Matthew 11:28-30
Think of Peter's writings as a statement of how to respond to God's ways and you will understand his point both biblically, theologically, and personally.
Observation #4: No leader is developed unless his gifts and skills are developed, but skills are not enough to form a follower into a leader. Skills are the easiest part to develop in a growing leader. We must focus on the most difficult part: the person who is learning to do the leading.
The spiritual disciplines are critical for leader development.
Leadership is influence growing out of competence and character. Leadership consists of two dimensions, the functional and the foundational.
The functional is what a leader does — doing, getting things done. It includes such things as vision, skills, resources, and reproduction. The foundational consists of what a leader is, being — the leader’s head, heart, and hands.
The foundational is key to the functional. When there is a flawed foundation, leadership collapses. We have found many leaders controlled by what we call invisible shackles.
We hide ourselves in our skills.
Put up a closed right hand – it signifies skills wrapped around the identity/character, which means we hit each other rather than connecting with one another. Now put up a closed left hand which signifies skills wrapped around the identity/character, which means we can’t grasp life without the full implementation of our character. This is why the Lord works all our lives to force our hands.
Foundational flaws call for spiritual formation in leaders.
Through a ministry called L.E.A.D. at Dallas Theological Seminary (Leadership Evaluation and Development) we have made the following discoveries concerning men and women in ministry, all of which cause us to conclude that formation lies at the heart of leader development. Leaders need formation because family patterns determine ministry responses and relationships. The marriage relationship provides the core ministry paradigm for the leader’s long-term ministry effectiveness. Frequently it is true that those working with a leader have the same attitude toward him/her as the leader’s mate. Communication patterns, attitudes of selfishness, control, and use of time are frequently the same in ministry as at home. Leaders who listen to their mates and learn to change will become increasingly effective in ministry.
While most leaders are acutely aware of the importance of character to long-term effectiveness, few leaders can or do make specific connections between character and ministry effectiveness. They cannot see how their character affects their competence.
A leader’s self-perception determines to a great extent how he will act and lead in every aspect of life. Accurate self-perception is indispensable to long-term effective ministry.
Confusion in this area means leaders pursue wrong goals and end up confused, frustrated, and angry.
Drivenness may energize ministry as much as the Holy Spirit. Many of us who enter ministry are deficit thinkers seeking to build identity through our success rather than through our dependence on the Lord and His Spirit. Until we learn how futile this is drivenness moves us as much as the Holy Spirit.
Relationships test and reveal a leader’s character and are far more an indicator of a leader’s success than career achievements. Many leaders are willing to sacrifice their marriages and children for success. Many leaders avoid giving themselves in relationships because they are afraid to be known. Many leaders don’t value relationships as much as they do tasks. As important as tasks are, Christ’s command is that we love one another as He loves us, and this makes relationships the ultimate test of our obedience.
Formation must confront the root issues in leaders.
Competition may motivate ministry more frequently than service. The drive for success breeds competition. When identity and superiority are at stake, competition takes over.
Leaders tend to mask their competitive drives with God words, but the fruit of their lives gives away their true motives.
Drivenness and competition are both a form of legalism in which the developing leader strives to get what only God can give through reliance on self, i.e., the flesh. This is what drove Paul when he first came to Christ. It was only as he learned what he was pursuing skybula that he turned to pursuing knowing Christ. This legalism results in identity needs that give rise to pride, anger, bitterness, resentment, and a host of other attitudes resulting in self-seeking and self-protection marked by selfish ambition.
This legalism can only be overturned as the developing leader experiences the brokenness process and enters into a temporal rest that only becomes permanent in eternity. Brokenness is an ongoing life process of pain, choice, and growth or pain resistance and cover up. Brokenness delivers the developing leader from pursuing skybula to pursuing Christ. Brokenness may be described as those times on our pilgrimage when God forces us to face the futility of our thinking and, turn away from pursuing our own interests to pursue His interests more fully.
Brokenness involves many things including success, failure, health struggles, a difficult child, a harsh boss, unfairness, injustice, conviction and confession of sin. I enter into rest when I release my control to trust Christ, and I can only enter into rest through brokenness.
Leader formation confronts foundational flaws – pilgrimage decision points.
A pilgrimage decision point is a moment in a developing leader’s life when he must choose between brokenness and pride. There are many occasions when this choice must be made. Almost all of these occasions concern something the developing leader would prefer to avoid.
Things like willing or forced confession of sin, acknowledgement of need, often already evident to many around the leader, facing failure (again often evident to many, but not to the leader himself, acceptance of an undesired limitation (a gift the leader doesn’t have; a dream the leader will never fulfill), submitting to unwanted authority and trusting God to bring about justice when injustice is in control.
Leaders may not understand what is happening to them in times of confusion and struggle. The leader is convinced what is happening is wrong. The leader is convinced what is happening is unjust. He/she is convinced of his/her innocence, and that may be the case. Anger comes rather than submission, but formation may require submission and not justification.
Leaders will struggle, but if they trust God in these times, they will emerge strengthened and more effective than ever. Many leaders will never understand why they experienced the struggle and hurt they did, but they will see the benefit they received from it. A leader who refuses to respond by trusting God in such moments will grow brittle and hard and lost significant opportunities to influence others.
A formed leader is an integrated person.
A formed leader has the mind of Christ. Phil. 2:1-11
A formed leader has the hands of Christ. John 13: 1-17
The formed leader becomes an agent of sanctification in Christ’s hands by washing the feet of those he/she serves. He/she humbles him/herself to be cleansed by others.
All leaders are followers, especially when it comes to being sanctified.
A formed leader has the heart of Christ. Mt. 11:28-30
A formed leader has a heart that has been broken through death, burial and resurrection.
The heart was Christ’s primary problem in forming His disciples. Mk 3:5; 6:52; 8:17; 16:14. It produced competition, ambition, dissension, and inappropriate self-confidence. The only solution for a hardened heart is the cross, the grave, and resurrection.
Seven Essential Observations
1. Leader formation occurs best in a ministry-focused group led by a loving and courageous leader. Spiritual formation is an individual experience, but it requires the ongoing input of others to be truly effective. It occurs constantly and incidentally in a well-functioning family. Ministry teams should be committed to spiritual formation as part of their responsibility, since only those who are growing will be truly effective in ministry.
2. Leader formation both tears down and builds up. It tears down such things as
- False identity
- Wrong concepts of significance
- Harmful values
- Darkened minds
- Hardened hearts
and it builds up such things as
- True identity
- Integration of character
- Healthy values
- Enlightened minds
- Carrying the cross
3. Much of what happens in leader formation occurs in public or is made known to the public. Peter’s life shows this. The difficult moments of leader formation eventually validate a leader and earn trust from followers. The public formation of a leader helps the leader and followers learn together that hurt, struggle, and pain, resulting in increasing godliness, are an evidence of God’s good hand on that leader’s life.
4. Developing leaders need someone to help them through the confusion of leader formation. When mid-morning turns to midnight, and the leader doesn’t understand how it happened and what it means, he/she needs much help. Many times the leader by temperament won’t be able to grasp what is happening. He can’t hear what the words mean. He can’t see where he needs to grow. Often this is because he’s projecting himself as the paradigm of what other people should be. Call this person a guide or a director or a mentor or a father or a mother or a brother or a sister, but every leader needs one.
5. Leader formation requires an understanding of Divine design. For leaders to make sense out of life, they need to understand God’s patterns in dealing with them personally. They need to have the confidence God is involved with them and is not done with them when mid-morning becomes midnight. The security of knowing I can confess my sin to a God who loves me and disciplines me for my own good is vital to the spiritual formation process. The excitement of knowing God has a future for me when no one else sees it is challenging and encouraging. The ability to understand, accept, value, and support others because I understand and appreciate their divine design frees me from the need to compete, dominate, or put down.
Unless a leader opens himself up for genuine accountability, his leadership will eventually fall, even if it looks good on the outside. Such a leader is like a fig tree in leaf but lacking figs in a season when it should be harvested. Leaders strive for power and control, many times for the sake of their mission, but, more frequently, to protect themselves. This tendency toward self-protection is the most self-destructive tendency of all, and controls many leaders’ lives. God works to break down self-protection through the accountable relationships in a leader’s life—
The diversity within a group, when honored, enables each member to gain confidence in himself and respect for others. Diversity helps leaders realize they are not the paradigm for all other people. Diversity helps leaders realize how truly limited they are in what they can do and it helps leaders be completed in their leadership task.
The eye of the artist
When I first started pastoring, all I ever saw in people was their flaws. I saw the reasons they could not be elders or teachers or equipped to serve others. I was a critic rather than a sculptor of souls. This was all I saw because I was looking at people with the eye of a critic rather than through the eye of the Artist. I saw what they were in themselves, not what they could be in Christ. It wasn't their flaws that kept them from becoming all Christ created them to be; it was my critical judgment that blinded me and kept me from seeing how Christ could transform them. I missed seeing all He was doing through those very people I regarded as unqualified to be used by Him. My heart was as hard as a block of marble, and I didn't even know it. I had to change, but I didn't understand how much, although I realized I needed to see people in a new way. I needed to see people as Michelangelo saw that block of marble he transformed into his David.
From hearts of marble to sculptures of David
The people whom we shepherd come to us with quarry marks and cuttings made in their lives by other sculptors long before we begin our ministry to them. They have flaws from their past. Shame, guilt, anger, bitterness, pride, fear-everything sin causes over decades of pursuing the foolishness of our age scars their souls. Like Michelangelo, we cannot allow these flaws to stop us from taking our cross-like mallet and beginning to cut away at the marble of their hearts. Of course, we consult with the Master Artist, spending long blocks of time in prayer for them, seeking to discern how to meet their needs from His Word. We chip away at the fault marks of their souls, tapping first gently, then firmly, until the pride, the anger, the hatred, the fear -- whatever it is -- falls away, and a little bit more of David appears. Ours is not a three-year project, of course; ours is a lifetime project, or as much time as the Master Artist chooses to use our hands to create His work of art in them. Gradually we see the marble of their hearts transformed into the beauty of David and we rejoice that the day is coming when we present them complete in Christ. It will be a great day when the Master Artist decides where they should be placed on view for eternity.
What a privilege to know we’ve participated with Christ in creating an eternal work of art in the hearts of men and women. He has chosen to place them in our hands, and we have chosen to give Him our hands. So it is we labor, even agonize, over these works of art, while He mightily empowers us to transform flawed souls into completed men and women.
This is spiritual formation: serving as sculptors of the soul. No honor could be greater, no responsibility higher, no accountability more. We must take this task as the most serious task we will ever have in time or eternity.
i Charles H. Morgan, The Life of Michelangelo (New York: Reynal & Company, 1960), p. 59-64.
ii Morgan, p. 61.
Bill Lawrence is the president of Leader Formation International (LFI) as well as Senior Professor Emeritus of Pastoral Ministries and Adjunct Professor of DMin Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. Bill began LFI in 2002 to minister to leaders around the world who are impacting the nations for Christ. Having watched God form his own life as a leader-mentor over 37 years in ministry (including 12 years as a founding pastor, 12 years as the Executive Director of the Center for Christian Leadership, and over 23 years as a seminary faculty member), Bill helps other leaders recognize the reality that their success as a leader depends upon God's formative work in their heart. Bill has been privileged to personally serve leaders in Asia, Central Asia, Europe, Latin America, and Africa. He has also produced a six-part video/workbook series, Forming Davids for the 21st Century, which is a perfect resource to help groups of individual leaders engage with each other in the leader formation journey.