These are my teaching notes from a short session on being available as a leader, which I taught at the Prairie Student Leadership Retreat on January 12, 2013.
“How can I lead people into the quiet place beside the still waters if I am in perpetual motion? How can I persuade a person to live by faith and not by works if I have to juggle my schedule constantly to make everything fit into place?” Eugene Peterson
One of the most important aspects to being an effective leader, particularly a shepherd, is being available.
I imagine a shepherd walking with his sheep, guiding them to a new pasture, while he is busy responding to emails, texting and arranging schedules on his phone. Next thing he knows, half his sheep have wandered off, and he has led the other half into a swamp. He was too busy to keep the flock moving in the right direction.
I have to admit that I have been guilty of this many times. I fill my day with so many things that I am not available to keep the flock in line, and I’m too preoccupied to keep everyone headed in the right direction.
The shepherding lifestyle involves making availability a priority. Availability to the people you are leading and availability to God.
There are three main areas I want to encourage all of us to be more available in. I have used Eugene Peterson’s The Contemplative Pastor as a main resource as I worked on this talk. The three main areas to be available in are prayer, teaching and listening.
1. Be available to pray
“I can be active and pray; I can work and pray; but I cannot be busy and pray. I cannot be inwardly rushed, distracted, or dispersed.” Eugene Peterson
John Piper, in his book Brothers We Are Not Professionals, points out that a pastor who believes he can produce eternal fruit by means of his own strength and skill, knows neither himself or God.
If we want to have an eternal impact on those we are leading, prayer is of vital importance. For, without the work of God:
We cannot weep with godly sorrow for the hurting and lost.
We cannot muster up hope in the eternal glory of God.
We cannot burn with life-changing passion for the gospel.
We cannot overflow with the living water that is Jesus Christ.
We cannot rest in the peace that passes understanding.
And we cannot have any chance at righteous, holy, uncompromising leadership, if we are not available to God for Him to work in us and through us.
One of my favourite quotes on prayer comes from William Wilberforce:
“I suspect I have been allotting habitually too little time to religious exercises, as private devotion and religious meditation, Scripture-reading, etc. Hence I am lean and cold and hard. I had better allot two hours or an hour and a half daily. I have been keeping too late hours, and hence have had but a hurried half-hour in the morning to myself. Surely the experience of all good men confirms the proposition that without a due measure of private devotions the soul will grow lean. But all may be done through prayer.”
When I first read this quote, I thought immediately about my own habits of late hours and rushed mornings. I have since asked God on a regular basis to wake me in the morning and give me a passion to devote time for prayer. It is not uncommon now for me to wake up at 5:30 or 6 am with a burning desire to spend an hour or more meditating on Scripture and in prayer.
2. Be available to teach
“I need a drenching in Scripture; I require an immersion in biblical studies. I need reflective hours over the pages of Scripture as well as personal struggles with the meaning of Scripture.” Eugene Peterson
If we are going to effectively lead people, we must be increasingly drenched in the power of God’s Word. For some people in this room, the idea of teaching others is frightening. I would argue that this should be the case for all of us. In James we read that teachers will be judged with greater strictness. However, we can calm those fears by a healthy daily dose of God’s Word. If we are to lead, we must be available to teach others how to live. In order to know how to live, we must consult the Word of God and fill our hearts with holy wisdom.
3. Be available to listen
For most of us, listening is a lost art. Whether it is due to our obsession with ourselves in the vain pursuit of power and recognition, or our lazy approach to our relationships with others, we are mostly really bad listeners. If none of you feel convicted by this part of my short talk this afternoon, at least I know one person is (myself). I have for a long time known that I need to improve my availability to listen. The trouble with listening is that it requires much time and a putting off of my own agenda in order to serve someone else. Eugene Peterson hits the nail on the head with this quote:
“I can’t listen if I’m busy. When my schedule is crowded, I’m not free to listen: I have to keep my next appointment; I have to get to the next meeting. But if I provide margins to my day, there is ample time to listen.”
A couple years ago, I learned about margins from [Prairie President] Mark Maxwell when he shared about his attempts at balancing a busy lifestyle within a leadership position. Since then, I have tried, and constantly failed, to build margins into my schedule so I can listen to others. I am grateful to those who have been patient with me, but I resolve to push harder to free up bits of time in between classes, meetings and homework, to be available to those I lead.
To finish off, I’d like to again read Eugene Peterson’s question that I read at the beginning, and point out the answer:
“How can I lead people into the quiet place beside the still waters if I am in perpetual motion? How can I persuade a person to live by faith and not by works if I have to juggle my schedule constantly to make everything fit into place?”
My answer is that I need to have a shift in my thinking about what is important in life. For many years I have believed that being in leadership is important. I have believed that God has a specific purpose in my life, and in order to achieve that purpose, I need to be in a position of influence. However, there is a purpose God has for me that is far greater and more important than having a position of leadership. It is this: to be available for his service.
I love the statement Mark Maxwell made at the first chapel of my freshman year. He said that the greatest ability one can possess is availability. As we study the Scriptures, we will find that those who God used were those who were not the most gifted or powerful. They were those who were the most available.