leadership praying

Truth be told, I haven’t read all the books on the market about leadership – it just feels that way.  Pass through any airport bookshop and you are likely to see me leafing through the pages of the latest business best-seller. Yes, I’m the one with the carry-on bag blocking your way to the checkout.

During my career in commercial publishing, I was responsible for major biographies and autobiographies. This gave me access to some of the greatest leaders and communicators of our day, including politicians, sports personalities, and royalty. I was required to understand their private world and try to make some sense of it.

“In recent years it has become fashionable to say that it’s irrelevant who we are on the inside just as long as we do a good job in public.”

In one example I visited Jonathan Aitken, a popular public speakers in recent decades. At the time, however, he was in Belmarsh Prison after being sensationally convicted of perjury in the biggest trial of its kind since Oscar Wilde. it was my job to ask him, as a former cabinet minister, why he had done it. His answer appeared later in his memoir Pride and Perjury and remains a fascinating account of human frailty and redemption.

Both in commerce and during more than a decade leading a sizeable non-profit charity, I’ve wrestled with the challenges of my own public profile.  I’ve watched colleagues burn-out or collapse under the weight of their moral failure. I’ve mentored younger ministers grappling with their preaching load and with themselves. I’ve also experienced the loneliness of leadership and the burden it can be on friends and family alike.

In recent years it has become fashionable to say that it’s irrelevant who we are on the inside just as long as we do a good job in public. Faced with the prurient fascination for the private lives of leading celebrities, this backlash is understandable. Surely it’s none of our business what people do behind closed doors.

As someone once said, “authenticity is the most important thing these days – and if you can fake that then you’ve got it made”. What does it matter if we’re faking it, just as long as our audience doesn’t notice?

However, a clutch of global politicians and even some well-known faces of the church today suggests that, when it comes to those who preach, this approach is not a good idea.

“We have paid a very high price for ignoring the simple and straightforward teaching of both Jesus and Paul…”

We have paid a very high price for ignoring the simple and straightforward teaching of both Jesus and Paul on this matter. ‘A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit’, taught Jesus in his famous Sermon in the Mount (Mt. 7.18). Later he made much the same point when he said, ‘First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean’ (Mt. 23.26).

Paul put so much stress on this that he admitted to being in agony as great as childbirth that ‘Christ is formed in you’ (Gal. 4.19). As many leaders will testify, eventually who we are on the inside will come out. Or as the quaint old saying puts it well ‘eventually your petticoat will show’.

As a result of this, a number of leading business schools now offer psychometric tests and high-end courses on what is known as ‘the dark side’ of leadership. Essentially they are asking ‘who are you when no one is watching?’

If the definition of ‘spiritual’ is everything that’s not physical, then the interior journey of the public speaker is a deeply spiritual affair. It takes us to the heart of what it is to be human with all our dark side and frailties. If we are to be successful at preaching then it will require a deeply reflective life and lifestyle.

I first realised this as a young speaker amongst students. I found that my faith was increasingly unable to carry the weight of the responsibilities that I now had. What seemed so simple and satisfying when I was a student myself was now no longer sufficient for the harsh reality of preaching and leading worship on a regular basis.

I felt increasingly lost and eventually decided that it might be better for everyone if I quit the church altogether. Then, in the summer of 1997, I bumped into Dallas Willard who had just published The Divine Conspiracy. which has probably become the most influential book on my life after the Bible.

“I felt increasingly lost and eventually decided that it might be better for everyone if I quit the church altogether.”

The Divine Conspiracy has taught me many things about the inner life of the public person. One of them is a set of four irreducible practices for a sustainable authentic lifestyle – worship and study, and silence and solitude.

My observations and mentoring have confirmed to me that the classic spiritual disciplines of silence and solitude are essential for a reflective and effective preacher.

‘Spend more time leaning back in your chair and looking out of the window’ is the counterintuitive advice I often give the upwardly mobile and hard-driven pastor. The deliberate habit of slowing down can be both the hardest, and yet most rewarding, part of the preacher’s routine.

“…learn what it feels like to quit running the universe for a while.”

Sometimes I suggest to church leaders that the most courageous and heroic act that they can do is to switch off their laptop and iPhone and go to bed. Why? Because in doing so we are consciously trusting God for the outcome of our ministry. Try it yourself and learn what it feels like to quit running the universe for a while.  It’s all part of the inner life of the public preacher.

James Catford is a former UCCF staff worker, publishing director at Hodder Headline and HarperCollins, and group chief executive of Bible Society. He is chair of Renovaré, deputy chair of Amity Printing Company in Nanjing, and serves on the board of SPCK, Renovaré US and African Enterprise. He is a currently a mentor, coach, and consultant.