A Guide to Authentic Spiritual Leadership
Credentials aren't everything. So what makes us sufficient for ministry?
The link to my actual sermon notes—which this article is based upon—is available for paid subscribers. Look for the link at the bottom of this post.
In Pursuit of Credentials
What makes for a successful spiritual leader? That’s the question religious communities have been asking throughout history. But defining that leader and/or developing one is no simple task. Today, most churches and religious communities identify their leaders using traditional benchmarks such as apostolic commendations, church associations, or educational qualifications. And those are respected ways to measure a leader—or at least to grasp their credentials.
But a deep dive into the teachings of the Apostle Paul reveals a more nuanced and authentic perspective on spiritual leadership. It doesn’t involve expensive theology degrees, letters behind a name, or stamps of approval from a governing body.
In his letters to the Corinthian church, Paul displays his apostolic authority outside of conventional pathways. His baseline credentials are simple: leading a transformed life that positively impacts others. His teachings in 2 Corinthians 3 provide a roadmap for successful spiritual leadership, a model that has helped many spiritual leaders overcome the greatest stumbling blocks in their paths.
According to Paul, authentic leadership starts and ends with two things: dependence on the Holy Spirit and the profound significance of changed lives. Let’s explore that in this article.
The Conventional Standards
During the early days of the Church, evidence of one’s adequacy for leading a community of believers was established with letters of commendation. These might come from one or more of Jesus’ disciples in Jerusalem, or from already established notable leaders elsewhere in the rapidly expanding community of Christ-followers. Modern communication methods didn’t exist back then, so these hand-written letters held substantial weight.
But letters written on parchment and passing across long distances can be copied, forged or edited. Their excessive use to distinguish between authentic leaders and charlatans quickly became problematic. How could early Christians know it really was Peter or John who signed these letters?
Paul rejected these conventional measures of authenticity and adequacy. Instead, he set forth two essential standards of true spiritual leadership—standards that weren’t as easy to fake.
Understanding and accepting these standards is vital for successful leadership. But over the centuries of church history, some Christian communities have dismissed them altogether. Instead of credentials, they became stumbling blocks.
My Journey into Spiritual Leadership
That was definitely true for me early in my personal journey into spiritual leadership. For twelve years, I grappled with my “official” qualifications, often feeling confused and discouraged. I came close to rejecting my spiritual calling.
When I first gave my life to Christ at 19, I was directed by God to work in my family business instead of attending seminary. So I kept working 40 hours a week while leading a church cell group. I was good in a small-group setting—it felt natural to me—and before long my church asked me to serve as a marriage counselor on the church staff.
It’s a long story that I’ve told elsewhere, but before long I found myself thrust into the role of a senior pastor for a young, substantial and quickly growing church. Through all this, I had no conventional “letters.” I didn’t have a seminary degree. I didn’t have any formal religious training. But the church I pastored grew to more than 9,000 members, and my wife, Karen, and I started (and still lead) the largest marriage-focused ministry in the world.
When I tell that story, the responses are always interesting. Some people are astonished by it. I’ve been told it’s “miraculous.” I’m not sure I would describe it that way, but I do believe it is the work of divine providence. That’s undeniable, but there's another factor at play. By bypassing conventional routes into ministry, I had the opportunity to grasp, embody, and promote the true standards of spiritual leadership as delineated by Paul.
I didn’t learn spiritual leadership in a classroom. I learned it in the halls of our church building and the homes and hospital rooms of our members.
Today’s Standards are Failing
Much like the early church, today’s churches, especially in America, place an excessive emphasis on official credentials. They aren’t literal letters from apostles. But some of them are actually “letters.” Do you have a PhD or an MDiv behind your name? For many Christian communities, that qualifies you to lead.
There are also a few other qualifying credentials in our culture, like the size of a ministry, the endorsement of church or mission associations, or any number of acceptable titles (like “senior pastor” or “Reverend”).
But you can’t find the true essence of spiritual leadership in a title, a degree, or a church building.
The Two Standards of True Spiritual Leadership
Authenticity through Transformation: The measure of a true spiritual leader can be found in the lives changed for God through them. In 2 Corinthians 3:2, Paul writes, “You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men.” This standard rejects the traditional reliance on literal letters or credentials, focusing instead on meaningful transformation brought into others’ lives. Jesus Himself lived this standard, as demonstrated in Matthew 11:1-6. He affirmed His authenticity through actions: healing the sick, raising the dead, and preaching the gospel to the poor.
Adequacy through Dependence: The key to success in ministry starts with dependence upon the Holy Spirit. Paul highlighted this in 2 Corinthians 3:4-9, in which he disavows any adequacy inherent in his abilities or gifts (“our sufficiency is from God”). Instead, he points to the power of the Holy Spirit, emphasizing His role in equipping us with knowledge, power, and abilities where we are deficient. This reliance on the Holy Spirit is the only true standard of adequacy for a spiritual leader. Unfortunately, the modern Church often overlooks or rejects this qualification in favor of more tangible achievements or credentials.
In today’s culture, “adequacy” isn’t a strong word. Saying someone is “adequate” for a task implies that they are merely satisfactory. They might do an OK job, but they won’t knock it out of the park. In our world, being adequate is not very exciting.
But that’s not what Paul is saying. He’s using the language of humility and powerlessness to talk about spiritual sufficiency—our competence and fitness to perform the tasks God has called us to do.
The majority of us feel inadequate because, without the Holy Spirit, we truly are! But as empty vessels allowing the Holy Spirit to work in and through us, we can change the world.
There are generally three ways people react to feelings of inadequacy:
They avoid risk, and therefore avoid ministry altogether.
They pursue commendations or the instant approval of theology degrees—the modern version of early Church “letters”—to gain a false sense of competence. Unfortunately, this gets corrupted by dependence on religious performance and adherence to the Law rather than the Spirit.
They depend upon the Holy Spirit for fitness to serve God, seeking His strength in their weakness and His wisdom in their ignorance. This is true humility but also true power. It’s the only standard of a leader’s adequacy or sufficiency, yet it is often rejected by the modern church.
Number 1 will result in passivity. You’re not going to change the world if you avoid risk.
And Number 2 results in a dangerous kind of religious performance. Paul describes this in 2 Corinthians, writing “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6). He refers to self-sufficient religious performance as “the ministry of death” (verse 7) and “the ministry of condemnation” (verse 9) because this approach leads to an endless cycle of striving.
You never accomplish enough. You’re never wise enough. You’re never good enough. You never feel like enough, because your sufficiency only comes through God.
Why Don’t We Depend on the Spirit?
Like Moses and Paul, most of us allow fear of failure, rejection, or our perceived inadequacies to keep us from embracing our dependence on the Holy Spirit. We try to create human solutions for our shortcomings instead of leaning on God’s provision and strength. God recognized this in Moses and reassured him this way:
So the Lord said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Or who makes the mute, the deaf, the seeing, or the blind? Have not I, the Lord? 12 Now therefore, go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall say.”—Exodus 4:11-12
Yonggi Cho was a prominent South Korean pastor who founded Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul. It became one of the largest churches in the world and had a huge impact on the expansion of Christianity in South Korea. At one point he was leading a 700,000-member church.
Someone once asked him the secret of his success. He simply replied, “I pray and obey.”
Or look at the life of the disciple Peter, whom the Holy Spirit transformed from a timid fisherman into a pillar of the Church. After denying Christ (see Matthew 26), Peter, through the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, became a man whose very shadow healed people.
Shifting Our Focus
I still don’t have a theology degree, by the way. No one will ever call me “Dr. Jimmy Evans.” But I believe my career in ministry shows that those worldly standards aren’t necessary. Education can be powerful, but it is not infallible. Letters of recommendation from an association or letters of achievement from a university or seminary don’t guarantee any kind of success.
It’s imperative, therefore, that we as the church shift our focus back to the original standards of leadership which Jesus and the early Church emphasized. Let’s be leaders who don’t identify success by worldly credentials but by lives transformed through our ministry. Our adequacy should never be rooted in self-reliance but fueled by our dependence upon the Holy Spirit.
If your actions aren’t bringing about change in the lives of others—or if you’re not leaning into the Spirit for strength and guidance—you might want to reassess your approach.
Embracing these two fundamental leadership standards doesn’t just pave the way for authentic spiritual leadership. It also aligns us with God’s divine purpose for our lives. Diplomas don’t change lives. Institutional approval doesn’t change lives. Only the Holy Spirit changes lives, and that’s why true spiritual leaders must depend on Him. ~ Jimmy Evans
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