March 2019
Becoming Disciples

Leading for Discipleship

In my ministry as parish priest in the Episcopal Church, I have been both guided and challenged by a question posed by Brian McLaren. Looking at the state of American Christendom, he asked, “Are we a club for the elite who pretend to have arrived or a school for disciples on the way?” The fact is, widespread complacency marks the Episcopal culture, sometimes causing it to resemble a club, a resting place, a destination.

Several years ago, Pope Francis preached that there is no such thing as a stationary Christian. His insight may explain why first Christians were called ‘people of the way.’ That’s a contrast and challenge to the many folks in mainline congregations who wonder what the talk of transformation is all about. Why should they bother? Why should they change? As one congregant commented, “We are spiritually shallow and we are fine with that.”

The heart of the leader is key in vital congregations

In our work with close to 300 congregations, RenewalWorks has noted five best practice principles that mark vital congregations. The first principle is: Get people moving. Get people to recognize that as individuals they are on a spiritual journey, that they are meant to go deeper and to never stop growing. Other principles include:

  • Embedding scripture in the life of the community
  • Creating a spirit of ownership and personal responsibility for spiritual growth
  • Pastoring the community, engaging with outreach efforts, forging a deeper connection with the neighborhood.

At the center of these first four principles is the most important – the heart of the leader. Getting people moving, creating a culture of discipleship is dependent on the community’s leadership. How does that happen?

First and foremost, the leader must work on his or her own spiritual life. In the 1930’s, Evelyn Underhill wrote the Archbishop of Canterbury to express concern about what she observed among the clergy of her day. She felt compelled to tell him that clergy needed to be called to a “greater interiority, a deeper life of prayer.” She reminded him that God was the interesting thing about religion and that people were hungry for God. What made her need to remind the archbishop that God was the interesting thing about religion?

Spiritually healthy clergy are able to get people moving

Her words resonate because after decades in parish ministry, I’m struck with how clergy can lose sight of the original call, their first love. Leading a congregation brings out the ADD in all of us, as we simultaneously attend to buildings, finances, personnel concerns, landscaping, cooking, all while we’re trying to preach, preside, prepare, pastor and plan. Any hope for vitality in our churches rests with leaders committed single-mindedly to the spiritual growth of the members in those churches. That starts with leaders focused on their own spiritual health and growth. Too often clergy are spiritually depressed, distracted or depleted, losing touch with why they got into the ministry in the first place. Clergy cannot give what they don’t have. They cannot share with authenticity what they are not experiencing themselves. Too often, that causes them to lose effectiveness in spiritual leadership. Sometimes they end up looking for an exit strategy.

But that doesn’t need to happen. We have discovered spiritual health and vitality in congregations led by clergy who have deepened their own spiritual lives, engaging with scripture to nourish themselves, developing meaningful prayer practices, engaging on their own with ministries of service. When clergy leaders experience that spiritual health, they can share it with the congregation. With humility and transparency, courage and vulnerability, they can lead their flock into a deeper life with God, closer discipleship of Jesus, all empowered by God’s Holy Spirit.

We find that clergy leaders who have committed to their own spiritual growth, who are intent on building a culture of discipleship in their congregations, are able to get people moving. And that spiritual leadership is not limited to the clergy. Clergy leading vital, vibrant congregations discover ways for lay leaders to focus on spiritual growth.

Vestry members are spiritual leaders, too

We are frequently asked to lead vestry retreats to help lay leaders understand their role as spiritual leaders in the congregation. Often in the Episcopal culture, vestry members limit their role to monitoring finances and facilities. Those are, of course, vital ministries. But at heart, vestry members are spiritual leaders, leaders of a spiritual community. That concept often triggers a deer-in-the-headlights look. Many vestry members (and other lay leaders) don’t feel equipped to be spiritual leaders. Many are not sure of what that would even look like. Some have no interest in such a role. Many have served on boards, corporate or non-profit, and have no idea of how service on the vestry differs from those other kinds of service.

It’s been heartening to witness clergy who rise to meet this challenge. One rector begins each monthly vestry meeting with an hour of Bible study and prayer for each other. That leads into a well monitored 90-minute meeting about other issues. Vestry members agree to serve knowing of this commitment. It has transformed the congregation, making vestry service not a depleting, boring series of business meetings but a deep spiritual community. Frankly, that is more time in study and prayer than I was ever able to include in a vestry agenda as a rector, but I share it as aspirational example of how to make a culture shift toward spiritual leadership.

Another rector recognized how ill-equipped her lay leaders were for spiritual leadership, when in other aspects of their lives they were extraordinarily competent. She developed a program called REVIVE, in which a clergy person builds discipleship in lay leaders through small groups focused on scripture, prayer and vocation. We see spiritual depth and vitality in congregations where everyone (clergy, lay leaders, staff) is pulling in the same direction, focused on spiritual growth as the priority for their congregation.

Congregations can change

With spiritual growth clearly identified as its priority, congregations are poised to move forward into deeper love of God and neighbor. For many congregations, that movement begins with a common endeavor. One of the most successful programs of engagement is some parish-wide engagement with scripture – for example, the Bible Challenge or the Good Book Club, currently promoted by the Presiding Bishop. Some have focused on teaching prayer and learning about Christian essentials. Others have embraced a new emphasis on outreach, anchored in Jesus’ call to reach out to those in need, responding to needs in the community in Jesus’ name.

Such efforts begin with leadership committed to discipleship. The heart of the leader matters. It’s key to the culture change needed in contemporary congregations. The change won’t happen quickly. It may not be easy. It won’t happen without intention. But when it happens, the church grows in vitality, which is a wonderful thing to behold. All of it is possible, by God’s grace, with God’s help.

The Rev. Jay Sidebotham is the Director of RenewalWorks. He also now serves as associate rector at St. James’ Parish in Wilmington, NC. Jay comes to this work out of his experience as rector of Church of the Holy Spirit in Lake Forest, IL, where he led the congregation through a period of sustained focus on spiritual growth and renewal. Before coming to Church of the Holy Spirit, he served at St. Bart’s, New York City; St. Columba’s, Washington, DC; St. Luke’s, Durham, NC; and St. Martin’s, Providence, RI. He is well known for his cartoons about church life and his animation work on the television series Schoolhouse Rock! For more information about RenewalWorks or about ways clergy are leading for spiritual growth, contact the Rev. Jay Sidebotham at or go to the RenewalWorks website.


This article is part of the March 2019 Vestry Papers issue on Becoming Disciples