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‘Heart-shaping’ called key to avoiding lackluster ministry, spiritual bankruptcy

COLUMBIA, S.C. (BP)–When a leader loses heart, he loses, but leaders who do not lose heart become champions, writes Reggie McNeal.

“Spiritual leadership is a work of the heart,” explains McNeal, director of leadership development for the South Carolina Baptist Convention, in the introduction to his latest book, “A Work of Heart: Understanding How God Shapes Spiritual Leaders,” published in conjuction with the Leadership Network.

“This truth escapes many spiritual leaders,” McNeal continues. “Caught up in helping other people maintain their hearts, they frequently ignore or neglect their own.”

A Work of Heart seeks to alleviate the symptoms of lackluster leadership and spiritual bankruptcy suffered by ministers who have “not looked after their own hearts in the midst of dealing with the hearts of others.”

“The failure to pay attention to fundamental issues eventually leaves the leader, at the very least, bewildered and discouraged or, in the worst case, devastated,” McNeal warns. “The continuum of loss moves from the deferment of the leader’s life dreams to the shattering of a future no longer attainable.”

Observing the trend of ministers flocking to “how-to” conferences to improve their skills, McNeal laments that this is often a substitute for genuine spiritual leadership. He believes “the prevailing mantra” is that if ministers do what some spiritual leader did, then they will see similar results.

“Maybe so, but probably not,” McNeal remarks. “Capturing and mimicking their techniques will not deliver spiritual breakthrough. That happens only on the heart level.”

The remedy, he says, is “heart-shaping,” a term for spiritual formation that he prefers because it’s a warmer, more intuitively understood phrase. Shaping the heart is done by God, who superintends a life’s development, and by human choice.

McNeal’s basic premise in A Work of Heart is that leaders’ lives are like great stories, which consist not only of a major story line but also a set of subplots. “These subplots reflect different arenas of the leader’s life in which God is at work,” he explains.

He identifies six subplots which God uses to shape the heart of any leader: culture — historical period, political situation and societal mores; call — personal conviction of one’s mission in life; community — family, friendships and faith groups; communion — cultivating one’s relationship with God; conflict — confronting and growing through destructive forces; and the commonplace — finding God in ordinary events and routines.

These six subplots serve as the framework for McNeal’s book. In the first half, he examines the lives of Moses, David, Paul and Jesus to discover clues of how God works in the lives of every leader’s heart. Then McNeal explores how each subplot also shapes the lives of today’s leaders, offering practical applications to help identify “heart-shaping” influences in their lives.

“My experience as a minister, a leadership consultant and a minister to ministers has led me to conclude that many Christian leaders do not understand their own developing life story,” McNeal asserts. “They do not have a clear picture of the heart-shaping subplots that in the long run create their life and leadership legacy.”

A Work of Heart is not about “some new methodological approach to your leadership, nor is it designed to remediate flaws or deficiencies,” McNeal says. “The goal is to get you acquainted with the most important information you will need as a leader — self-understanding.”

    About the Author

  • Todd Deaton