Discipleship: Leading in Spiritual Formation

A Pastor’s Main Business


There is so much to learn and so much to do, it is difficult for the pastor to know where to focus attention. There is the need to learn about evangelism and church growth, to become involved in the local community and in outreach ministries, to visit and to counsel the members of the church, to learn new methods of local church management and administration. Pastors wonder where they should begin and in what direction should they should focus their time and energy. What should be the main business of a pastor?

Although today’s pastor is concerned about a variety of ministry tasks, such as church growth, counseling therapy, management and administration, the pastor should focus on the business of spiritual formation because it is from this foundational task that pastoral and church ministry can flow.

What is spiritual formation, and in what way can it be said that it is the source from which pastoral and church ministry can flow? This paper will discuss spiritual formation as a foundation for pastoral ministry. We will first look at how spiritual formation has been understood.

As Christians who take the Bible as authoritative, we will then look at the teachings of the New Testament, noting scriptural teaching that points to spiritual formation as a foundation for pastoral ministry. Once this is established, we can begin to examine how the pastor needs to understand spiritual formation and how this understanding will inform the practice of pastoral ministry.

Defining spiritual formation

What are we talking about when we discuss spiritual formation? In some traditions, it is the use of prayer, meditation, confession and ascetic practices to discipline the soul. In other traditions it may involve more about experiencing the joy of justification and conversion, along with their consequences for ethics and daily discipleship. Spiritual formation can also be described as the process of spiritual growth and development that begins to take place in a human being when that person has encountered the divine and the divine begins to impart a new center for the human consciousness (Johnson 1988).

When one encounters God (through God’s divine initiative) and enters into relationship with him, one is transformed into a “new creature,” who continues to be molded and shaped by God. This encounter with God can assume several forms, often dependent upon one’s personality and temperament. Once begun, this “molding” and “shaping” continues in a process that takes place from the ongoing deepening of the relationship. As one’s relationship with God continues and deepens, one is being continuously spiritually formed.

Types of spiritual formation

Throughout the history of the church, disciples of Christ have sought to devote themselves to him. They have sought to have a personal relationship with him and to become more like him. Due to differences in personality and temperament, Christians have sought and developed various forms of spirituality to aid them in these pursuits.

Various forms of Christian spirituality include Evangelical, Charismatic, Sacramental, Activist, Academic and Ascetic. Each form of Christian spirituality has its differences, but they all have in common the desire of the practitioner to be spiritually formed by God. The following brief synopsis of each form of spirituality is drawn from descriptions given by Ben Campbell Johnson (1988, 68-73):

Evangelical Spirituality

This form of spirituality is usually found in conservative churches with a puritan or revivalist tradition (Johnson 1988, 68). Persons encounter God through his Word by setting aside times for prayer and Bible study on a regular basis. The Scriptures are authoritative, and by studying them one can discern the will of God in order to obey it. Meditation and fasting are also used to seek God’s will and make it one’s priority in life.

Evangelical spirituality has a strong appeal to the sensate and extroverted type of person who likes to have everything in life spelled out clearly. These Christians are usually passionate for God and are willing to work hard and sacrifice their lives. The weakness of this form of spirituality is that it can have a tendency toward legalism and the development of a
judgmental spirit.

Charismatic Spirituality

This form of spirituality is found primarily in Pentecostal and nondenominational congregations. Charismatic spirituality is associated with the gifts of the Holy Spirit and his present activity in the church. God often is experienced through the Spirit. The Bible may mediate the experience of God, but the experience can also be drawn from such activities as small group meetings and charismatic praise and worship services.

Some groups believe that speaking in tongues is the evidence of possessing the Holy Spirit and they seek to exhort other Christians into seeking this experience. This form of spirituality often finds support in group settings where the experience is shared and the gifts practiced. Charismatic spirituality tends to appeal to the extroverted, intuitive, feeling temperament.

Sacramental Spirituality

This form of spirituality is found primarily in the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Episcopal churches. In Sacramental Spirituality, the presence of God is mediated through the sacraments and the liturgy of the church year. The church festivals and celebrations provide the structure; both nature (viewed sacramentally) and history (viewed as God’s unfolding story) contribute to this spirituality. Corporate worship is the focus for strengthening Sacramental Spirituality. Its practice tends to appeal to the thinking, sensate type of temperament.

Activist Spirituality

This practice is found mostly in the left wing of mainline denominations and in various religious issue-oriented groups (e.g., feminist, peace, and ecology groups). However, there is some increase in interest in activist spirituality among some evangelical Christians.

The activist engages God primarily in social service and in political action rather than in church or private devotion. The practice of this spirituality seeks to find solidarity with God who is actively transforming the world. This form of spirituality tends to appeal to an extroverted, intuitive, feeling temperament.

Academic Spirituality

This form of spirituality involves Christians who think about God and systematize their thought, thus expressing their relationship with God through the mind. It tends to be found among scholars, theologians, teachers and studious clergy who express their spirituality in a lifestyle of study, analysis, reflection and teaching. Its practice would appeal most to the introverted, intuitive, thinking temperament.

Ascetic Spirituality

This form of spirituality is found mostly among nuns and priests in religious orders and in Protestant holiness movements. For the ascetic, God is engaged in the daily devotional routine of prayer, meditation and the reading of spiritual literature. The ascetic expresses devotion to God by a life of contemplation and self-denial. It is a simple lifestyle often marked by vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Its practice appeals most to the introverted, sensate temperament.

Toward an “Eclectic Spirituality”

Each approach to spiritual formation has strengths and its weaknesses. Each approach appeals to people of certain temperaments. Since the pastor’s main business is teaching and modeling spiritual formation, which approach would be best for the pastor to take? Which form of spirituality is best for the pastor to teach the congregation in order to help its members grow in Christ-likeness?

Though different in form, the purpose in each of the above approaches to spiritual formation is to know God, to be known by God and to respond to him with one’s whole life. The goal of spiritual formation is to place oneself in a position to be molded and shaped by God.

The Christian’s spiritual life has to do specifically with life under the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ and the God who graces believers with the Spirit (Barton 1992, 2). The different approaches to this life have elements that appeal to people of different temperaments, but all have the same goal.

A pastor should be well informed about the different approaches to Christian spirituality. The pastor should teach the congregation about the various approaches and point out the strengths and weaknesses of each. An ideal would be for the pastor to be balanced enough in temperament to be able to model, to some degree, the strengths of each approach to spiritual

Into what is the Christian to be spiritually formed?

In our discussion of spiritual formation as the main business of the pastor and as a foundation from which pastoral ministry can flow, we must ask a critical question about our topic: Into what is the Christian to be formed?

In Pauline thought

In Pauline thought the disciple of Christ is to be formed into “maturity, to the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). Christians are also instructed:

“Let the same mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5).

“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).

“It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).

For Paul, the Christian is to seek to imitate Christ and thus be formed into the image of Christ. Spiritual formation is what happens as one leads a vital, Christ-like life. Spiritual formation is a process toward a state of Christ-like maturity.

In Johannine thought

In Johannine thought, there seems to be the idea of the disciple representing Jesus to the world. According to John 14:7-11, Jesus said that since the Father dwells in him, if you have seen Jesus you have seen the Father. The implication for the disciples seems to be that if they can say that Jesus dwells in them, then if a person has seen a disciple, then that person has seen Jesus. This idea suggests that the disciple represents Jesus by an ongoing replication of himself in their lives through the Holy Spirit. In this way, the ministry of Jesus does not end on the cross but continues in the words and good deeds of those who represent him.

John 14:13-14 indicates that belief in Jesus brings power from God to the Christian to perform the same works that Jesus performs (which are the works of the Father), because, by uniting a person with Jesus and the Father, belief gives that person a share in the power that they possess (Brown 1970, 633).

From John’s account of the farewell discourse of Jesus, we can see that the ministry committed to the disciples was to receive its power from the indwelling of the disciples by the Father and Jesus through the Holy Spirit. Thus, a re-presenting or replication of the ministry of Jesus would flow from a transforming engagement with the triune God. This ongoing engagement with the triune God would spiritually form an ongoing replication of Jesus (his words and deeds) in the life of the disciple.

The mission of pastoral ministry

According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus told his disciples (for whom he had both taught and modeled spiritual formation, cf. Matthew 6:5-13; Luke 11:1-4) that their mission was to be the making of more disciples (Matthew 28:19). Thus, the disciples are to evangelize those who are not yet disciples and then baptize and teach those who become disciples. This teaching, following the example of Jesus, would include spiritual formation. The new disciples then could grow toward Christ-like maturity and thus be able to lead others in this same process. This would be a continuation of the ministry of Jesus in which they had already been participating.

I believe that pastoral ministry can be defined in an overall sense as the continuation of the equipping ministry of Jesus, by those whom Jesus has chosen to equip others. It is an ongoing ministry involving teaching and leading disciples in the process of spiritual formation (that is,
people being formed into the image of Christ). As people are formed into the image of Christ, the words and deeds of Christ will come forth and the ministry of Christ replicates and continues.

The primary focus of pastoral ministry cannot be limited to caring for the members of the church. Ministering to members’ needs, evangelization, discipleship and all other tasks of pastoral ministry can flow from a focus on teaching and leading disciples in spiritual formation. The ultimate product of pastoral ministry is Christ-like, equipped disciples who are able to evangelize, disciple and minister to others.

Ephesians 4 explains that certain gifts were given to the leaders and teachers in the church. In verses 12-16, we are told the purpose for which these gifts are given. Church members are to be equipped and prepared by the called and gifted leaders of the church to minister to others.
The church, the body of Christ, is to be built up in an ongoing spiritual formation project. The equipping and building up is to continue toward the goal of unity and maturity, the full stature of Christ.

This process of equipping and building up the members of the church will lead the church into greater internal stability as it helps the members to grow more into the form and pattern of Jesus. As the church members are enabled to replicate the ministry of Jesus, they will grow in their loving relationship and service to God and their fellow humans.

Writers of the New Testament point to the need for the pastor to focus on the business of spiritual formation. As spiritual formation takes place, ministry (e.g., evangelism, outreach, social activism, spiritual therapy, etc.) flows out as a result of the Christ-likeness being formed.

Learning and teaching spiritual formation

Spiritual formation should be a focus of pastoral ministry, out of which the rest of a pastor’s ministry can flow. How does the pastor go about this task? Paul’s instruction to the congregation in Corinth is instructive for us. Paul instructed the Corinthian church members: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). Can pastors make this pronouncement to our congregations? Perhaps we fear that the members of our church would find in us very little to imitate.

The doing of the ministry of Jesus Christ must begin with one’s being. The minister ministers by “being” a minister of Jesus Christ. Ministry expresses itself in guiding persons on their personal journey and in shaping the ministry of the church to re-present Jesus to the world (Johnson
1988, 8).

Pastors cannot guide people on a journey about which they personally know nothing. Pastors cannot shape the ministry of the church to re-present Jesus to the world if the pastor has not met and been shaped by the risen Lord. Before a pastor can replicate the ministry of Jesus, the pastor must be a replicate of Jesus. Before one can do pastoral ministry, one must be a pastoral minister. Before one can teach and model spirituality, one must “be” involved actively in one’s own spiritual formation. Being must precede doing.

The being of the pastor

How does one “be” a pastor? From what does the being of a pastor stem? Is it from the pastor’s relationship with God? Is it the result of being created with a certain temperament that fits being a pastor or being spiritually gifted to be a pastor or being called by God to be a pastor? I
suggest that it is a combination of temperament, gifts and call, made alive in ministry by the dynamism of the Holy Spirit flowing forth from the pastor’s relationship in Christ with God.

All Christians must have a relationship with Christ. But not all Christians have the temperament, the gifts and the call to be a pastor. Yet, having these things apart from a personal relationship with Christ will not produce a pastor who is a true minister of Jesus Christ. To be a pastor who
can minister effectively in the business of spiritual formation, one must have a personal, reconciled relationship with Jesus Christ, a temperament that fits being a pastor, the appropriate spiritual gifts and the call to be a pastor. From this being will come the doing of the ministry of Jesus Christ.


Reginald Johnson and Thomas Merton argue persuasively that a person’s temperament should be viewed as a creation gift from God (contrasted to God’s re-creation gifts of the Spirit) (1995, 34-35; 1983, 22).

Is there such a thing as a temperament that is best suited for pastoral ministry, and if so, what is it? Many people are familiar with the Meyers-Briggs instrument for temperament analysis and have made good use of it in understanding themselves and those with whom they work. Any pastor who is not familiar with this instrument would be well advised to become familiar with it.

The Meyers-Briggs instrument is based on the work of psychologist C.G. Jung, who believed that within a person’s consciousness are four functions. The functions with which we receive data are intuition and sensation. We receive data from the inside through intuition, or from the
outside by sensation. Once received, consciousness acts on these data in one of two ways: feeling or thinking. By feeling, Jung means valuing, deciding and acting. By thinking, he means analyzing, organizing and structuring.

While intuition, sensation, feeling and thinking are found in all persons, each person has a preference for gathering data: intuition or sensation. Each has a preferred way to operate on the data: feeling or thinking. According to Jung, each personality is oriented primarily either to
the outer world of things and persons or to the inner world of feelings and ideas.

This contrast in orientation defines what he means by introversion and extroversion. At the core of this concept is the matter of energy. The extrovert receives energy through relationships and activities in the external world. The inner world is often unknown to the extrovert and may
become a source of boredom. The introvert, on the other hand, is energized through solitude and a retreat within. The outer world of relationships and activities drains the introvert of energy and forces a retreat to silence for renewal (Jung 1965; Barton 1988, 38-49).

It would be easy (at least for me) to conclude that the ideal pastoral temperament would be that of an extrovert and “feeler.” A pastor who is depleted of energy by being around groups of people and by being involved in social activities could be prone to job burnout. Also, a pastor who tends to analyze and categorize people and who deals with people’s needs on only an objective level may not relate well with the congregation.

However, pastors who lean too heavily to the extrovert-feeling aspects of temperament may find that they allow their time to be consumed by people and activities. Such pastors could end up with congregations that are frustrated by the pastors’ poor administration of the affairs of the church and shallowness in preaching, teaching and counseling.

Reginald Johnson suggests that Jesus was the unique person who perfectly used every aspect of his temperament in a balanced way (1995, 14). This suggestion presents a model for pastoral temperament. The model is Jesus. Since none of us is as perfectly balanced as Jesus, it seems to me that a pastor should be a “feeling extrovert” who is balanced enough in temperament to occasionally desire the benefits of solitude and contemplation. This “feeling extrovert” pastor should also be balanced enough to be mindful of the need to be organized and structured enough to do a good job at church administration. As a check to see that balance is maintained, wise pastors will seek some people in the congregation with different temperaments from their own to help with the pastoral duties.

Reginald Johnson tells us that the pastor’s temperament will influence the pastor’s approach to spiritual formation (1995). Again, the pastor must seek balance if the pastor is to reflect Jesus and model spirituality for the entire congregation. While the extrovert will seek to encounter God in other people and in corporate worship, the need for private worship cannot be neglected. The “feeler,” to whom the presence of God comes to consciousness through the inner world of intuition and imagination, must balance this with the realization that God comes to us through the external events of history and nature, human intelligence, theology, the Bible and the Christian tradition.

This eclectic approach toward spiritual formation is an ideal. However, the pastor must be aware of vulnerability to excesses. Emphasis on biblical authority and Christ as the norm of spirituality can degenerate into reading the Bible from duty or creating one’s own brand of legalism. In searching for personal experience, one can make experience into an idol. The
pastor must struggle for balance.

To be effective, a pastor must reflect the balance of Jesus. If one is an extrovert, one must take time for private reflection and worship. The introvert must spend time with God’s people and lead in corporate worship. The “feeler” must think, study, plan, organize and administer. The “thinker” must have vision, dare to dream, create and use imagination. A pastor who is extreme in temperament and not able to balance the various functions will face great stress and likely burnout in pastoral ministry.

Spiritual Gifts

In Romans 12:3-8, the apostle Paul compares the church, the Body of Christ, with the human body. He tells us that each part of the body has its own special function that contributes to the overall functioning of the body. In verse 6 we are told that members of the body of Christ have been given various gifts by the grace of God that supply certain functions in the church.

In Ephesians 4:11, we are told that one of the gifts given for the equipping of the saints and the building up of the church is that of pastor. The Greek word that is translated as “pastor” is poimen, which literally means “shepherd.” How should we understand this gift?

Church growth expert C. Peter Wagner defines the gift of “pastor” as: “the special ability that God gives to certain members of the Body of Christ to assume a long-term personal responsibility for the spiritual welfare of a group of believers” (1994, 135). In his book, Your Spiritual Gifts Can Help Your Church Grow, Wagner argues that there is a difference between the office of pastor and the gift of pastor in today’s churches. He further insists that there are two necessary gifts, leadership and faith, for the office of pastor. He does not see the gift
of pastor as necessary or even desirable for the office of pastor of a large, growing church (1994, 134, 140-141).

If one understands the role of “shepherd” as caregiver to the sheep, then the shepherd (pastor) could be seen as too involved with the needs of individual sheep rather than seeing an overview  f the flock and how the size of the flock might be increased by adding additional sheep. This type of shepherd could even see any offers to help with the care of the flock by other shepherds or by some of the sheep themselves, as a threat to the shepherd’s job and mission in life. The person who excels in caring for individuals may not provide effective leadership for a large, growing church.

Wagner recommends that the pastors of large churches identify people in the congregations who have the gift of “pastor” (i.e. the gift of long-term nurturing and care-giving) and see to it that these individuals are empowered to take care of the members of the church. This would ensure that the members’ needs are being met while freeing the church pastor for leadership, administrative and other duties demanded in a large church setting.

While Wagner’s recommendation has merit, it seems to me that a biblical understanding of the role of spiritual shepherd gives a much broader view of the gift of pastor. In Psalm 23, the psalmist tells us that the Lord is his shepherd. He then describes care-giving, but he also emphasizes the shepherd’s leadership. In John 10:11 and in Hebrews 13:20, Jesus is referred to as the Shepherd of the church.

Any biblical model of shepherding should reflect on how Jesus “pastored” his disciples. Jesus taught his disciples, but he also modeled a way of life for them to follow. As their shepherd, he both ministered to them and led them, and thus taught them how to minister and how to lead others. Jesus modeled servant-leadership for his disciples by exhorting, teaching and by modeling for them how to serve others (e.g., John 13:15-16 . I see the gift of pastor (shepherd) as the gift given by the Holy Spirit to a person to be a servant-leader, a spiritual shepherd of God’s people, no matter the size of the group.

It is true that the pastor also needs the gift of faith. A pastor must be able to discern what God’s purpose is for the church and to know that God will accomplish his purpose in his people. The pastor must have and must share the vision of where God wants his church to go. The pastor leads the congregation toward God’s purpose for them, knowing that it will be accomplished.

Pastors of very large and growing churches might need, in addition to the gifts of strong, dynamic leadership and faith, such gifts as administration, vision and the ability to exhort and to inspire. Pastors of smaller, community-based churches might need, in addition to leadership and faith, such gifts as teaching, encouragement, mercy, hospitality and the ability to build team leadership, to act as a facilitator, to equip and empower church members for ministry.

While factors such as the size of a congregation may affect the need for different gifts, the gifts of faith and leadership seem to be necessary for all pastoral ministry. The faith and leadership provided by the Holy Spirit is the same faith and leadership that was displayed by Jesus.

The Call

Christians are people who have been called by God (John 6:44). Some Christians are called by God to be pastors. There is no distinction between pastors and laity with respect to the call to faith. From within the context of the call to faith, God calls some to pastoral ministry.

How does one know whether one has been called to be a pastor? An analysis of temperament and spiritual gifts would be a good place to start. A temperament that loves to be with people, has high ideals and values, has deep feelings for the Divine and for the state of humanity, is balanced by reason, organization and objectivity, appears to be the temperament of
effective pastors.

In looking at one’s life for evidence of God’s call, one might note where one’s temperament has led to seeking certain opportunities of public speaking, teaching, helping people and leadership. As these opportunities were sought, did it seem that “God’s hand opened doors” that allowed experience to be gained in these areas? Perhaps while attending church, a certain temperament and certain spiritual gifts led the person to greater and greater involvement in the ministries of the church.

Over time, a person may hear what H. Richard Niebuhr describes as the “secret call” (1956). By this he means a growing inner persuasion of the Spirit that one has been called by God to pastoral ministry. This inner secret call begins a process. The idea persists in one’s mind and grows increasingly attractive. The person tries to envision what it would be like to be a pastor. Usually a battle with feelings of guilt and uncertainty ensues. The person may try out the call by volunteering for acts of ministry in the congregational setting – helping with worship, teaching a discipleship class, visiting the sick, leading a small group. Positive feedback from those being served becomes an affirmation of the call. For some few, the call may be more dramatic, with an overpowering sense that God is catapulting them into pastoral ministry. Still, it requires more than just a personal sense of a call to be a pastor.

The call of a person to pastoral ministry must be recognized by the community of faith. The particular form of recognition depends on the denomination or local congregation. Whether the polity of the church is congregational, presbyterian or episcopal, whether one is appointed as a senior pastor by a denomination, by a bishop, by a committee of elders or by a local board, the final affirmation of one’s calling is with the people of God whom the pastor serves.

True, there are times when a pastor may be treated unfairly by a congregation or it may be a bad mix of cultures, personality or gifts. However, at some point, if one has continually struggled with being affirmed by the congregations (a large segment of people as opposed to a few problem members) where one has served, one must consider the likelihood that one has not been called to pastoral ministry.

If one tried to pastor without a call from God, affirmed by the community of faith, one could perhaps carry out the functions of the role but without a sense of the holy. This “pastor” would be no more than an administrator of a branch office of the institution, or a public relations
director for a religious corporation, or a psychologist counseling clients, or a philosopher of religion examining ideas about God, or an employee hoping to keep a job (Johnson 1988, 17).

The pastor is not only accountable to God in terms of ethics and effectiveness, but is also accountable to ecclesiastical supervisors who represent the community of faith. It may be that, for the good of the congregation and the pastor, the pastor’s supervisors may have to inform the pastor that the fruit of the call of God to pastoral ministry is not in evidence. That can be a very painful experience for a pastor, a supervisor and a congregation. However, to be legitimate, the call of God to pastoral ministry must be recognized and affirmed by the community of faith.

What of the pastor who has been called by God but somehow loses the sense of that call? The loss of the sense of call sometimes paralyzes the pastor into inactivity or brings about a numbness in which pastoral duties are done perfunctorily. The painful realization that one has lost the sense of call can be viewed as an invitation (Johnson 1988, 18). It is an invitation to seek the One who gave the call. God never abandons the tired, confused and overwhelmed pastor. A pastor caught in such a morass often forgets this and feels abandoned. If God does not seem as close as he once was, who moved?

In times of pain and discouragement, go back and recheck the call. Ask God, “Did I not hear you call?” Counsel with your family, your peers and with your ecclesiastical supervisors. The true call of God can and will be reaffirmed. A pastor who has been called by God may temporarily lose the sense of call, but God will not abandon that pastor (Romans 8:28-30, 35, 37-39). A  persuasion of call that will not let go sustains the being of the pastor and always rekindles the doing.

The relationship with Christ

The apostle Paul wrote, “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). The pastor and the congregation must manifest this life of Christ. The purpose of pastoral ministry is to build up the Body of Christ by producing Christ-like, well-equipped members of the church in whom the ministry of Christ in word and deed is continued. A primary focus of the pastor in accomplishing this purpose should be that of spiritual formation. The members of the congregation must be led and taught how they can become formed into the image of Christ and manifest his life in their lives. Pastors cannot lead, model and teach others how to become formed into the image of Christ if they themselves are not experiencing it.

To truly be a pastor in the body of Christ, one must have accepted Jesus Christ as personal Savior. To be a pastor one must have an ongoing relationship with Jesus Christ. To be an effective pastor, one must model and lead people into a deeper and deeper relationship with Christ so that the image of Christ is being formed in them. A pastor can do this only if a
spiritually forming relationship with Christ is going on in the life of the pastor.

How does one enter into this spiritually forming relationship with Christ that produces Christ-likeness in us? Put another way, how do we get into shape? Ephesians 4:11-16 tells us that it is the pastor’s responsibility to “build up the body.” How does one build up a body? Paul tells us that we are like athletes. If we are to win the prize, we must train and discipline ourselves (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).

Athletes often speak of getting in shape for an event. Pastors must also get in shape. They must get into the shape of Christ, and model that shape for the congregation. Pastors must teach the members of the congregation how they can train to get more into the shape of Christ. “Train yourselves in godliness, for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promises for both the present life and the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:7-8).

There are ways we can enter into a spiritually forming relationship with Christ. Jesus maintained a very special relationship with the Father while he was on this earth. The Gospels tell us how he did this (e.g., Matthew 4:1-2; 6:5-15, 16-21; 7:7-8; 9:14-17; 14:3, 23; 16:24; 19:11-13; 26:26-28, 36-44).

To be like Jesus, we can imitate the spiritual practices (holy habits) of Jesus. The New Testament informs us that there are certain practices that Jesus and his disciples engaged in (such as worship, prayer, study, fasting, meditation, celebration, solitude, simplicity, submission, service and confession) that we can undertake, in cooperation with grace, to raise the level of our lives toward godliness. Further help in understanding these relation-enhancing activities is available from the writings of the great women and men of God throughout the ages, who became the great people of God as they participated in spiritually forming practices.

The spiritual disciplines (as these practices are often called) are activities of mind and body purposefully undertaken to bring our personality and total being into effective cooperation with the divine order. These practices enable us more and more to live in a power that is, strictly speaking, beyond us, deriving from the spiritual realm itself — as Romans 6:13 puts it, “[as we] yield ourselves to God…and our members as instruments of righteousness unto God” (Willard 1988). The purpose in using the spiritual disciplines is the total transformation of the person. They aim at replacing old destructive habits of thought with new life-giving habits.

While a comprehensive study of each of the disciplines is beyond the scope of this paper (for a comprehensive examination of the spiritual disciplines, see the books listed in the  bibliography), let us consider a few, brief examples.

  • Worship (both corporate and private) is a powerful, spiritually forming activity. In worship the worshipper is transformed by an engagement with the presence of the triune God (e.g. Isaiah 6:1-8; Revelation 1:10; 4:1–5:14).
  • Prayer is another powerful spiritually forming activity. In prayer one becomes attuned to the will of God (e.g. Luke 6:12-13; Matthew 26:39).
  • Study of God’s Word is very important. Perhaps nowhere is the transformation more clearly seen than in study. Paul tells us that we are transformed by the renewal of our mind (Romans 12:2). Many Christians remain in bondage to fears and anxieties, false hopes and false beliefs because they do not study. They go to church, they sing, they serve, try to be obedient, but do not change. Study is one of the central ways God changes us.

A pastor must study to know the truth. A pastor must study the Bible, books that help explain the Bible and the writings of the great women and men of God who have lived over the course of the past 2,000 years. Without this background, preaching, teaching, counseling and evangelizing are dangerous, as they become prone to heresy and spiritual abuse. When done properly, study not only imparts information (truth), it imparts transformation. As a pastor, your study can transform you and aid you in helping your congregation become transformed. As a pastor grows in understanding the Bible and Christian theology, the pastor’s preaching, leading of worship, administration of the sacraments and other speaking and teaching duties grow in their transformational power (Isaiah 55:11).

All the spiritual disciplines are important and helpful. God has given us the disciplines of the spiritual life as a means of receiving his grace. The disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so that he can transform us (Foster 1988).

I like to think of using the disciplines as setting my sails in the trade-winds of the Spirit. By setting my sails, I do not get the credit for any movement or progress in life. I merely place myself in position to be moved by the wind. The wind does the moving and carries me to the destination. If I did not set my sails, I still would encounter the wind, but I would not be
moved so powerfully by it.

I urge every pastor to read and study Dallas Willard’s book The Spirit of the Disciplines and Richard Foster’s book The Celebration of Discipline. After reading these books, check their bibliographies for other books that will help you learn and practice the spiritual disciplines. You may also want to read Willard’s more recent book, The Divine Conspiracy and Foster’s latest, Streams of Living Water. The next step is to teach the spiritual disciplines to your congregation and lead them in their practice. This is a pastor’s main business.

From being to doing

As the pastor practices the spiritual disciplines, that pastor is being formed. As the pastor is formed into the image of Christ, the pastor can then draw on temperament, spiritual gifts, the call of God and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ to teach and model the life of one who is being spiritually formed. Then the congregation will find itself being formed. This is what we are all about as pastors in the Body of Christ.

As we are the ministers of Christ, we will do the ministry of Christ. Pastoral transformation will lead to congregational transformation — the building up of the body of Christ into the fullness of Christ-likeness. As the church becomes more and more Christ-like, imitation of the life of Christ increasingly leads and empowers the church to do the ministry of Christ. Thus, all the ministry of the church can be said to flow from the results of the pastor’s primary task of spiritual formation.


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———. The Spirit of the Disciplines. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988.

Author: Dan Rogers

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