This is the first and foremost important component to being a healthy and effective leader. It’s one that I had to learn the hard way. Before I tell you why, I need to give you some context behind why it’s the most important and how I learned this the hard way.
The year was 2013 and I was 25 years old. I had only been attending church for 2 years, but I was zealous and full of passion for young people and wilderness adventure.I had grew up hiking, rock climbing and had been a whitewater rafting guide in Colorado and Wisconsin. All I knew was that I wanted to take young people on wilderness adventures and share Jesus with them. The church that I was a part of was really good at reaching people outside of the church, I mean really good. We were so good at putting on events and programs that we were doing multiple events every week. These events generally attracted a large crowd, hundreds of people would show up and it was an amazing thing to be a part of.
I knew I needed some help in figuring out how to do wilderness ministry, so I took to the internet.
I found a guy that, in my mind, was a wilderness ministry guru. He worked for this organization called the Wilderness Ministry Institute and was from Ecuador, in the Andes mountains. He was a mountaineer and rock climber and helped leaders from around the world do wilderness and youth ministry and just so happened to live 20 minutes away from me. He was like an Ecuadorian Yoda. He invited me along to go backpacking with him and another guy he was walking with at the time. I gladly accepted. The trip started off bad all together. We were late to the trailhead, I was overpacked and out of shape. It was January and snow was on the ground. We had about 4 hours to make it 8 miles, all of which was up hill. About an hour in I realized that I was out of my league with these guys. We made it to camp…eventually and setup our tent on the snow. Our watch said it was 7 degrees, not to account for the windchill which likely put it around -10 degrees. My sleeping pad had a hole in it and provided me with little insulation from the frozen ground. We cooked inside the vestibule and broke every rule of camping there was. We were just trying to survive at this point.
At this point, I thought I had earned the right to ask this guru what the secret formula was for growing a wilderness ministry and youth ministry. So, I asked him “how can I grow my wilderness ministry and youth ministry?” He looked at me and without missing a beat he replied, “pick one or two people, walk with them and invest in them for a year and your ministry will grow.”
I said, “You’re full of crap”,( I actually used a more colorful word at the time). To which He replied,
“I don’t care what you think.”
Then he proceeded to roll over and go to sleep. I thought, I haven’t learned anything from this man. So, the next day we came off the mountain and I proceeded to try and do ministry my way. For the next year I took this picture of ministry I had formulated and applied it to my vision for my wilderness ministry and youth ministry. I remember putting leaders into positions of leadership for their ability to accomplish a job that I needed help with and not necessarily their heart for pouring into the next generation. I took a lot of young people and adults on wilderness trips. We did rock climbing, caving, rafting and backpacking trips. A lot of students participated in these events and were hearing the gospel while we were out there.
But, at the end of that year, none of the students lives were being changed. They didn’t have any deeper of a walk with Jesus than when they first began. The people I had in leadership weren’t growing much either. They were only infants in Christ and needed to be nurtured themselves before they Could possibly have anything to offer someone else. It was at this point that I realized I had been wrong. I had been so focused on getting people to participate in my events that I had completely neglected nurturing their souls.
I called that guy back up and said, “I think it does work the way you told me it did, and I want to know how.” He invited me to his house for coffee that week and I went. I thought He was going to tell me which step that I missed and how to fix it. But, the first thing he asked me was this;
“Paul, how is your walk with Jesus?”
I said, “Man, I’m on staff at a church, I’m good, let’s talk about ministry and reaching others.”
He said, “I don’t care about your ministry, I care about your heart.”
I was not expecting this at all. And in a moment, my perspective began to change. The previous leaders above me had only wanted to talk about ministry. What was working, what wasn’t working and how we could get more students to our events. This guy was different and it showed. He then asked me the most important question I have ever been asked in my life as we looked into the woods behind his house. There were trees all over the place. Big ones, little ones, fat ones and skinny ones.
“What is the most important part of those trees out there?” he asked.
I replied, “The roots.”
“Why?” he responded.
“Because they provide strength, nutrients, water and a foundation for the whole tree. If anything happened to the roots, the whole tree would die.” I said.
“Exactly. A tree focuses solely on its roots. Not the trunk, the branches or fruit. It know’s that everything from the ground up will inevitably happen when its roots are deeply abiding in good soil, with a good water source to feed it. You have been so focused on producing fruit in your ministry, that you have neglected your roots. If a tree’s roots go neglected for too long, the entire tree will die.”
This was singlehandedly the most profound moment of my entire life. I began to catch a vision for what healthy ministry could look like. And it looked like focusing on my roots in Christ. In John 15 Jesus says this, “I am the vine, you are the branches, if you abide in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit.”
How did I miss that? How did I get so sidetracked by having a fruitful ministry that I missed the one component that would allow me to see it happen. Somewhere along the way, the western church has gotten sidetracked. We’ve put all of our effort into producing fruit through programs and events that we have forgotten where the fruit comes from in the first place. Jesus.
What does this look like for you
So what does this look like for you as a leader? This has to be your first priority of every day. For all intents and purposes I want this section to help give you tools for how to focus on your roots above all things. After all, before you can give anything to those you are leading, you must first have something to give. Have you ever heard of the phrase “You can’t lead from an empty cup”? It’s absolutely true.
We Jesus model this for us all throughout scripture. One verse I’m reminded of is found in Luke 5:16.
We know that Jesus did all He could do to meet the needs of the masses. He frequently would have compassion on people and begin to meet their needs, whether spiritual or physical. But, He also knew that He needed some strength to do this. This is why He would frequently withdraw to lonely places and pray. He would go spend time in solitude with the Father. He would be still and listen for the Father’s voice. He did this in places that were lonely and far away from people. He understood that He needed to strip away all the distractions and be alone with God so that He could hear Him clearly. And when He was done, he always emerged back into the city with a clear direction and plan. (see Mark 1: 29-39)
In the society that we live in, especially in America, there is this idea that business equals success. This is so far from the truth, especially in the church. We must be developing a regular rhythm of retreat, just like Jesus did, if we want to be healthy leaders who can develop healthy leaders from the generations behind us. The implications of not doing that are burnout.
How are you prioritizing your time and schedule around focusing on your own roots? Another reason I love this picture of a tree for describing healthy life, community and ministry in Christ, is because tree’s go through seasons. They go through seasons of being completely bare, to sprouting buds and ultimately to full fledged foliage and fruit. Then it will go through the cycle all over again. When we look at a tree in the dead of winter, it appears dead right? But is it dead? Not at all! Its whole focus in the winter time is to push its roots down deep in search for nutrients and a water source so that it can stay alive and be ready to produce fruit in its season. Our life is much like that with Christ. There will be seasons where you are producing fruit. BUT, when a drought comes or the heat scorches, it is your ROOTS that will sustain you (see Jeremiah 17:7-8)
Spiritual disciplines are paramount for our growth in Christ. They act as a conduit to your roots. If you look up the structure of a root, you will find 4 main things. Primary Root, Secondary Roots, Tertiary Roots and the Taproot. Secondary roots are what act is the roots conduit. They have these little hairs along them that extract nutrients, vitamins and water from the soil and they send it down the secondary root to the primary root, which distributes it to the rest of the tree.
Our spiritual disciples are what carry the nutrient rich word of God with the living water of Christ to the rest of our body. Spiritual disciples are not to be viewed as a checklist, which many people can do. They should be viewed as something that brings us vital growth in our walk with Jesus. So what are spiritual disciplines? For the sake of time, I won’t list and go into detail of all of them. I will point you to an amazing article on this topic that Don Whitney wrote for desiringgod.org You can find it here.
The point is that we need to be disciplined in order to grow. I hope and pray you are focusing on your own disciplines in your search to grow closer to God and your knowledge of Him. I pray that you will remember what Jesus teaches us in John 15, that “apart from him we can do nothing.” Your ministry will be fruitful as you abide in Christ. Period. The end.
If you enjoy my posts and have been blessed by them, please think about sharing them with your friends, co-workers or other pastors. My heart is to help other leaders learn what God has taught me, without them having to go through the same struggles I did. I would also LOVE to hear from you, so please drop me a comment below!