Spiritual Calories and Spiritual Leadership
One of the hardest things to get used to when I was working as a summer camp counselor was getting enough food. I know this sounds counterintuitive but the first few days of staff training the men’s staff would have universally agreed - three meals is not enough. After running around playing sports, painting every rail high and low, trimming trees, and spending the afternoon on the lake, every meal felt like the end of a 40-day fast.
Even as a pretty athletic college student, working out each day and bricking up a few shots from behind the arc at the Colvin on the weekends, my day-to-day life in Stillwater paled in caloric comparison to corralling 12 campers 24-7 in Branson. I wasn’t in any danger of playing college sports, but I remember the guys who did had the hardest time reaching their weight and strength goals over the summers.
The scramble every summer to get enough calories was a reminder of a simple principle: more out, more in.
I remember being struck by the similarities when I left ministry for a year to write my dissertation and get So We Speak off the ground. I used to joke that for a year I was a retired pastor. But whereas before I was spending almost an hour each day in the word, studying, being filled, and getting fed, I realized I was being filled much more easily after I left.
Slowly, I started to realize it was taking significantly less time and less material to sustain my spiritual life. I don’t mean this to say that my soul was any less vibrant during that season. At first, I was really embarrassed about this. I worried that I might be missing something. Am I drifting? Am I backsliding? Have I lost my first love?
But as time went on, I was doing what I’d always done before - I’ve always found George Mueller’s maxim to be the goal of my time in the mornings: read and pray until your soul is happy in God - it was just taking less time.
As I prayed about it and talked to a few other people I knew in ministry, I started to understand what was happening. To return to the athletic metaphor, being in ministry can feel like the morning after a half marathon - sometimes two or three days a week. Stretching out tired hamstrings and sore knees can take a while. As you take on more spiritual leadership, whether that’s in full-time ministry or in different seasons at home and at work, you might incur some spiritual soreness. You’ll certainly notice your tank running dry sooner than you expect.
Here’s what I learned. Your spiritual output is fueled by your spiritual input. More out, more in. If you’re stepping into a new role of leadership, devote more time to prayer, invite more accountability, make it your goal to commune with God, and find your joy and resolve in him.
The pernicious flip-side of this principle is the busier you are the harder it is to get your spiritual nourishment. It's much easier to spend less time with God when you're in ministry. One of the great dangers in teaching, preaching, and shepherding is that holy things begin to feel ordinary. Time constraints, frustrations, sin, laziness, and other excuses pop up. Over time they become more persuasive.
One of the devil's most successful strategies is to give Christian leaders a false sense of inertia. It’s easy to think that by working at a church, in a Christian environment, or being surrounded by other believers, you’ll grow by osmosis. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. This is the way to spiritual starvation.
Charles Spurgeon, a spiritual hemi if there ever was one, knew the principle of spiritual calories. He quoted one of his heroes, Martin Luther, who said, “I have so much business to do today, that I shall not be able to get through it with less than three hours’ prayer.” Spurgeon added, “Now most people would say, ‘I have so much business to do today that I must only have three minutes’ prayer; I cannot afford the time.’ But Luther thought that the more he had to do the more he must pray, or else he could not get through it. That is a blessed kind of logic: may we understand it!”(1)
This is a blessed logic and a helpful principle for Christian leaders: more out, more in.
(1) C. H. Spurgeon, “Degrees of Power Attending the Gospel,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, vol. 11 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1865), 502.
Cole Feix is the founder and president of So We Speak and the Senior Pastor of Carlton Landing Community Church in Oklahoma.