The Surprising Importance of Self in Ministry Leadership

As previously published on The Gospel Coalition.

According to a Business Insider report, LeBron James spends about $1.5 million each year caring for his body—an investment that has paid off with a superstar career.

What if pastors were willing to spend substantial effort caring for their souls?

In my pastoral ministry (and in my recent doctoral studies), Bowen Family Systems Theory (BFST) has helped me understand the surprising importance of investing in oneself for ministry leadership.

Leadership’s Relational Nature

Anyone who has tried to lead a ministry knows there are no quick fixes or easy solutions. Leading people is hard. Most of its challenges arise from the web of relationships involved—relationships among God, the congregation, and its leaders. Navigating these relationships is often the decisive factor in good leadership. Negotiate them well, and ministries tend to thrive. Guide them poorly, and they can flounder.

At its heart, BFST gives insight into the relational tension every leader has experienced. This tension, which BFST calls “anxiety,” occurs in every group and tends to lead people in one of two unhealthy directions: in the face of conflict, they’ll either fuse emotionally with others in an effort to get along, or withdraw and cut them off. Either approach leads to a ripple effect in other relationships within the group. Conflict and anxiety beget more conflict and anxiety.

Why Self Matters

Because of the position they occupy, a leader’s management of such anxiety has an outsized effect on the larger organization. Their ripples are larger and more influential on the organization than others’ are. And the less they’re able to deal with this anxiety, the more it will be felt by those around them. 

Recognizing this dynamic, Murray Bowen, the father of BFST, advised that real leadership requires a “leader with the courage to define self.” He advised that leaders, rather than focusing on others to relieve relational anxiety, begin by first dealing with the anxiety inside themselves. A leader’s ability to enter relationships in a non-anxious way is a starting point for health within the larger organization.

Non-anxious leaders are grounded in who they are and can remain calm, engaged, and even challenging in spite of potential opposition. Just as anxiety begets anxiety, healthy leaders can reproduce healthy dynamics simply by their presence.

Develop Your Sense of Self

Non-anxious leadership does not come easily. But by pursuing emotional and spiritual health, ministry leaders can foster a healthy sense of self. In 2 Timothy 2:5, Paul likens his protégé’s pastoral call to that of an athlete. Athletes who don’t train well or eat well also don’t play well—and ministry leaders who don’t put time and effort into being emotionally fit and spiritually fed won’t do well either. 

Healthy leaders will focus their attention on changing themselves, whom they can control, rather than the people around them, whom they cannot. They’ll develop a clear vision and purpose for themselves; this will in turn flow to the rest of the ministry, providing a similar clarity, purpose, and wholeness for the larger organization. And as they do so, the communities in which those ministries are engaged will also move toward health.

Such leaders will clarify where they end and others begin, while seeking to understand how the various members of the body work together in their common goal. Others can have thoughts and feelings about an issue or topic, and yet a non-anxious leader will not be threatened.

In delegating tasks, healthy leaders will ask self-defining questions such as What are the core things that only I can do? and Why am I not doing only those things? As they answer those questions, they’ll work through the process of clarifying themselves and helping others to do the same.

In all of these efforts to clarify a leader’s sense of self and direction, trusted counselors, regular exercise, and a disciplined routine of prayer and Bible reading are foundational practices. In so doing, they’re preparing themselves for the hard work of shepherding God’s people.

Healthy Leadership’s Benefits

Because of the relational nature of ministry, the ability of leaders to hear the anxiety of others without losing their sense of self is crucial. Like Rumpelstiltskin spinning straw into gold, God takes the ordinary elements of these leaders’ lives—the presence and character of themselves—and uses it to build things of eternal value in the communities around them. 

Christian leadership that integrates the principles of BFST recognizes that God’s people not only need leaders to tell them what to do, but also to show them how to be. Virtues such as holiness, humility, patience, and love are the work of the Spirit. But they’re usually found in communities where leaders model these same characteristics in an engaged and non-anxious way.

In our culture’s particularly anxious moment, let’s pray that more leaders would walk in this wisdom.