Recently I was a guest lecturer for a course where the professor invited me to share on the topic of the Holy Spirit and Leadership. I wasn’t immediately sure of what to talk about. If you’ve read many books on the Holy Spirit, you will know that they don’t include chapters on leadership. Likewise, books on leadership generally have little to say about the Holy Spirit.
So, I set my mind to thinking about where in the Bible the Holy Spirit is related to leadership. I thought of people like Moses, Joshua, the Judges, Saul, and David, all of whom the Bible describes as having the Spirit upon them and all of whom served as leaders in the nation of Israel. In the New Testament, I thought of the apostles, Stephen, and, of course, Jesus.
As I reflected on people like these, here are some observations I made:
1. You can be a leader without the Holy Spirit
When Moses needed help with providing leadership, God told him, “Bring me seventy of Israel’s elders who are known to you as leaders and officials among the people” (Numbers 11:16). Note, they were already leaders, but God “put the Spirit on them” so they could help Moses “carry the burden of the people” and he would “not have to carry it alone” (verse 17).
2. Typically, the Spirit stayed long-term on leaders
This is true of these new leaders in Israel, as well as Moses, of whom God said, “I will take some of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them” (Numbers 11:17). We can say the same thing of King David. Likewise, the Spirit remained on King Saul up until Samuel anointed David to be king (1 Samuel 16:13-14).
3. The Spirit empowers leaders to deal with mundane matters
Spirit-empowered leadership isn’t always flashy. The new leaders of Israel were empowered by God to look after the daily needs of the people. Likewise, in the New Testament, Stephen was chosen as a Spirit-filled leader not to start a new international television ministry, but to help look after the needs of the local widows (Acts 6:1).
4. The Church looked for leaders who were full of the Spirit
With respect to Stephen, when the apostles were looking for people to look after the widows, they specifically looked for people who were “full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (Acts 6:3). And Acts explicitly informs us that Stephen was “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (verse 5).
5. Leadership can be a gift of the Holy Spirit
For some Christians, the gift of leadership may not have quite the same allure as the gift of miracles or speaking in tongues, but the apostle Paul lists leadership in a list of gifts right alongside prophesy (Romans 12:6-8, see also 1 Corinthians 12:28 in the NRSV or NLT). This of course means that leaders are to act for the well-being of others, since the gifts of the Spirit are “given for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7).
This observation doesn’t mean that only those who have the gift of leadership can lead. Instead, just as the Spirit of God can use any Christian to teach or to give, there are some who have the gift of teaching or giving (Romans 12:6-8). In the same way, the Spirit can use any Christian to lead, but God gives the gift of leadership to some specific Christians.
6. Spirit-empowered leadership is servant leadership
Jesus was a leader empowered by the Spirit, and he exemplifies servant leadership. Jesus “did not come to be served, but to serve” (Matthew 20:28). This should help keep leaders from becoming self-absorbed. And as Paul Tillich observes, the Spirit “fights against the ambiguities of power and prestige.”
7. The Holy Spirit shapes the character of leaders
Though this work of the Spirit is not unique to leaders, character is integral to leadership. On this point, José Comblin observes of his Latin American context that through the work of the Holy Spirit “in the Christian communities, leaders emerge who cannot be either intimidated or bought.”
What does it look like on the ground?
While I had prepared all of these biblical and theological reflections, when it actually came time to discuss the topic in class, one student piped up right at the very beginning and asked, “So what the heck does the Holy Spirit and leadership look like on the ground?” My answer is that it can look very different in different contexts. Not every Spirit-empowered leader will look the same way, because the Spirit does not shape every leader in the same way. Some leaders will be very exuberant; others will be quieter in their leadership. And the Spirit will enable leaders for the specific tasks to which God calls them in their own unique situations.
Finally, and perhaps most important for those within the pentecostal-charismatic movement, we shouldn’t expect that it will always be obvious if the Spirit is at work in a leader. Or at least, we shouldn’t expect it always to be obvious in the same way that it is obvious if a person speaks in tongues. Instead, we might observe the discreet presence in the Spirit in a leader. We might, for example, be like Pharaoh, who recognized Joseph as one “in whom is the Spirit of God” because Joseph was “so discerning and wise” (Genesis 41:38-39 ESV).
May the Spirit help us all to lead in wisdom and with godliness.
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