Lead Yourself First: Spiritual Formation in a Crisis

In a crisis, opportunities for spiritual formation abound, but they are often hard to see. How can we gently, patiently participate with what God is doing in our lives, and help others do the same? As a companion piece to our Practices of Formation for the Missional Leader podcast, we interview Bishop Todd Hunter and the Rev. Dr. Brian Wallace, Executive Director of the Fuller Center for Spiritual and Missional Formation, on why we must lead ourselves first, why the process of formation is the same as the goal, and what a mature relationship to anxiety looks like.

With Brian Wallace and Bishop Todd Hunter

Q: Brian, how are the leaders you know experiencing formation during this time of crisis?

Brian Wallace: We have all been faced with an inflection point in our lives and in our leadership. And one thing that inflection points do is expose us for who we really are. For example, the pandemic has helped lots of women and men I’ve been talking to identify the effect of their formation up to this point. The pressures and the intensity squeeze out who we really are. Crises make us face who we really are.

Just today I’ve talked to a leader who confessed tremendous anxiety. He has to face that anxiety and understand where it fits in his relationship with God. What does he do with it in the context of his family, his church community? And how does that anxiety impact the way he’s called to enact the kingdom of God where he lives?

Our formation isn’t about getting ourselves strong so that we can be obedient or do what God asks. Formation is about the way we are in the world, being formed into the image of God, to be with God and his community in the world.

Our formation isn't about getting ourselves strong so that we can be obedient or do what God asks.

Formation is critical preparation for these inflection points—and navigating them. We need to cultivate a life with God and in Christ, growing into his image so we can bear the inflection points and also be a kingdom ambassador where God’s called us to live, through the pain, through the crisis.

Q: Bishop Todd, how does spiritual formation fit in with the way you’re leading others and yourself during this time?

Bishop Todd Hunter: I keep coming back to the notion of leading yourself first so that we can be present to all the pain and suffering and confusion and questions. We can’t change the pandemic or single-handedly eradicate racial violence. We can’t change other people’s reactions—people even in our own homes, or our bosses, or our neighbors.

The one thing we can do is focus on ourselves. Not in a selfish way, but in an almost tactical way. In my book, Our Character at Work, I wrote a highly paraphrased translation of Proverbs 4:23: Put everything you have into the care of your heart, the hidden, causative, motivational you, for everything you do flows from it. It is the real source of your outward life and it determines what your life amounts to.

That’s what I call the genius of Jesus. He taught that everything flows from the heart. In that sense, self-focus is not selfish but leads to an otherliness. As Christian leaders, we care about others and want to serve them. But if we can’t be present to them and present to our life in healthy ways, we can’t do what we dream to do. So, lead yourself first.

Q: Brian, in your Fuller Formation Groups, how do you talk about the idea of leading yourself first so you can lead others? 

BW: We invite people to listen to the invitation Jesus gave his first disciples in Mark 3:13-14. Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach…” We remind people that before we’re servants, priests or pastors we are the wanted of God—rooting our identity in God’s initiation with us. We’re invited to live our lives in the presence of the living God, incarnate in the person of Jesus. The first disciples walked where Jesus walked, lived where he lived, ate where he ate, slept by the same campfires. By being with him in this way, they literally got the aroma of Christ. Simultaneously, they were called to go and bear the aroma of Jesus, to proclaim the good news that he was proclaiming that the kingdom was coming, that there was a place for the poor and the lost.

The invitation to formation is not removed from the call to make God known in the world, but it starts and is rooted in the primacy of God’s wanting to be with us. The primary invitation is to live that out in relationship, in proximity to Jesus. The way we do that in modern life is through spiritual disciplines and practices. I think of them less like individual threads; it’s more like a spider web—with a sort of wholeness. I wouldn’t say it’s sequential. Jesus invited his followers to get up and go from their vocation into a new vocation. Their obedience to go make Jesus known was part of their discipleship. Part of their formation began in obedience to the mission, in following the mission, and learning that they didn’t have any power in and of themselves. They always came back to the primacy of the person of Christ in their life.

My experience in 40 years of walking with Jesus and 35 years as a pastor is that depending on the day, depending on the week or year, God’s using something different in my life to draw me to himself. Sometimes it’s being given an impossible task and God saying, “I want to watch you trust in me and see me do something through you.” Or just seeing God transform another life that that looks so lost. When I see a healed marriage, life or relationship, that grows my faith.

So, sometimes God forms me in the work that I do, and sometimes he forms me in the quietness of our relationship. We focus on different elements at different times. Right now, I am working on my identity. That’s where Jesus has me right now, in the parable of the prodigal son—the reminder that the Father comes after the older son and says, “You are my son, and you are always with me. Everything I have is yours.”

Sometimes God forms me in the work I do, and sometimes he forms me in the quietness of our relationship.

Q: In leadership books or podcasts that aren’t Christ-focused, formation or growth is usually centered around honing skills, or becoming an expert. But  spiritual formation is more than simply honing a skill or even a spiritual gift. Can you help us think about that?

TH: Effective leadership obviously can’t be absent of skills. However, I’ve been overseeing churches and clergy for almost 40 years, and I can honestly say I’ve never seen a single minister who flamed out over a skill-based issue. Most ministers of either gender who flame out do so over issues of the heart—or what we would call formational issues. I’ve never known anybody who got fired because he or she wasn’t particularly great at Greek participles.

Christian leadership is by definition a participation in the ongoing life and leadership of Jesus. That immediately puts a whole different spin on it. It’s like Brian said, the aroma of love is way more important than any tactics. This heart business, our own formation in Christ so that we can participate in his ongoing leadership, is way more important than mere skill acquisition.

BW: I think the genius of Jesus and creating communities of kingdom mission is that within each community are the panoply of skills necessary for the kingdom to be enacted in that space. The skills are not ultimately located in one woman or one man. When I have a weakness in my leadership, whether in my skills or my vision, if I look around and am humble enough to notice, it’s always there in proximity to me. What’s needed for my community’s health and flourishing, God has provided in a woman or man in my community.

In evangelical Christian culture, we’ve elevated gifts of leadership to almost make cult-like figures of people who are able to lead out of their own ability, their own skills, their large churches or large movements. I’ll be honest, in my young life in Christ, this was a real issue for me. I thought I was supposed to pursue excellence in leadership after that model. Then God put three men in my life. One was James Houston who founded Regent College and Seminary. At the same time I was in a leadership course at Fuller Seminary, thinking it was going to give me all the skills I needed to succeed. I remember James saying, “Brian, avoid the cult of leadership.” He was inviting me to protect my soul from thinking I was going to manage my way into effectiveness or into relationship with Jesus.

At the same time there was a gentleman named Doug Stewart who was my supervisor at InterVarsity. He took me on a silent retreat and made me reflect on Psalm 131 for a solid four hours: My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content.” God was using those things to get my attention.

Soon after, I took a course with Dallas Willard. He had us memorize all of Colossians 3. There’s nothing in Colossians 3 about leadership. It’s all about taking off malice, anger, rage, things that are going to block my ability to love others or be present to God. These are the barriers to relationship. Then, we are to put on those things that enable the goodness, the kindness, the spirit of God to flow into our lives and out of our lives into other people’s lives. That really got my attention. I realized, “Brian, God doesn’t need you to be a wise, smart, sage leader. He needs you to be progressively, deliberately formed to the very image of Jesus and to be present with people in that way. It’s a lot easier to enact success than it is to be the character and nature of Christ.”

God doesn't need you to be a wise, smart, sage leader. He needs you to be progressively, deliberately formed to the very image of Jesus.

Q: Brian, I heard you say once that the process of formation is the same as the goal of formation. Could you flesh that out for us?

BW: Sure. Let’s go back to Colossians 3 for a moment. This is something Dallas taught me and writes about in his books a lot: The way that you become a kind person is to act kindly, to put on kindness. The way that we can become someone who is generous is to act generously. A way to become grateful or to be a thankful person is to act thankfully. It comes by practice.

At first, I resisted that because our culture tells me if it’s not authentic, then it’s really of no value. I thought God required and demanded this authenticity of me too. But I was learning in my classes to act a way until you become one who is that way. That’s how I think we become kind, generous, present to other people. We follow the genius of Jesus by obeying the things he taught us to do as a way of becoming conformed into the very image of Jesus himself.

Q: In our cultural moment, anxiety seems to be a largely shared experience. What would it look like to practice ourselves into non-anxiousness?

BW: Anxiety is a challenging thing because it is so multifaceted. It is chemically wired into some people’s brains. It’s part of some people’s DNA, perhaps. But it’s also something we can choose. I can choose to put my anxiety down. I can choose to pick up hope or thankfulness, truth, the reality of where I am.

I can choose to put my anxiety down.

The challenge, though, is to embody the opposite of anxiety—peace. We have to come at it slant, as Eugene Peterson would say. The way I work on anxiety is what James Bryan Smith talks about in the first chapter of his book, The Good and Beautiful God. He talks about the spiritual practice of sleep. For me, the spiritual practice of sleep is the reminder that God doesn’t need me. The God who never sleeps designed me to spend a third of my life asleep. And for me to participate in sleep is to enact the truth that God is sufficient in the world. He invites me to engage, but sleep is the way I say, I am not going to pick up what’s not mine.I’m going to put that down. I’m going to choose to let God be in control.

Q: Bishop Todd, you often talk about embodying a non-anxious presence. How do you think we practice our way into this?

 TH: For a couple of decades or more, I have practiced little things as I go through my day. I call them enabling prayers. If I’m about to have to have a difficult conversation, I’ll stop and remind myself, “I’m always safe in the kingdom of God.” Or, “The Lord is my shepherd. I don’t have to live in the tyranny of my wants.” Or, if I’m going into a key meeting, I might, under my breath, say, “Come, Holy Spirit; come, kingdom of God.”

The vast majority of nights before I go to bed, after doing some sort of Ignatian review of my day, I just open myself. Literally, I open my body to receiving the kingdom and the shepherding of God, receiving the righteousness, peace and joy of God’s kingdom.

There’s a difference between “fake it ’til you make it” and what Brian is talking about, “practice ’til you make it.” Right now, I guarantee you that major league hitters in this off-season are hitting balls off a tee, like a 4-year-old does. Major league hitters do this, or they play what’s called “soft toss,” where a teammate or coach will literally just toss a ball up about a foot in the air. And these huge, strong, young guys practice hitting the ball into nets. They’re practicing so that what they need in the eighth or ninth inning with the game on the line has become embodied in them through these tiny, little practices.

One of the things I’ve said to my clergy lately is “Get small, go slow.” This is that same idea of a major league hitter, somebody getting paid $20 or $25 million a year, hitting balls off a tee. They’re getting small. They’re controlling what they can control.

Sometimes I ask myself, “What would it look like to be at peace in this meeting I’m having?” When I try to act peaceful, I’m not faking it. I’m not being a hypocrite. I’m trying to live into what I imagine a peaceful leader might look and sound like. You do that for a couple of decades, and you’re going to be a different person.

In a pandemic or just an important vestry meeting, everything starts racing in us. Dallas Willard used to say when Peter denied Jesus, his legs ran away before his volition could catch up. What was embodied in Peter was likely some sort of fear, anxiety, a sense of not feeling safe. How do you undo that in yourself? It’s these little bite-sized things, not only day by day but hour by hour. They should be really gentle. They should be peaceful. I counsel people to make it childlike. It sounds cheesy, but can we get enraptured in Christlikeness so that it’s almost fun?

Maturity in relationship to anxiety isn’t the process of never feeling anxiety but noticing it faster. It’s attentiveness to self, being aware of my emotions as I’m heading to this meeting, or not knowing if the funds are going to come in to sustain our budget. I pay attention to it, and then enact an embodied practice. Sometimes, it’s breathing, sometimes choosing to rest.

Maturity in relationship to anxiety isn't the process of never feeling anxiety but noticing it faster.

Also, I like the practice of saying it out loud, confessing to a friend and saying, “Man, I’m just really scared about this meeting. I feel like it has a lot of impact on what’s going to happen in our church or what will happen in my life. Would you pray for me? Would you help me choose to believe that God’s in control of this, not me?”

BW: Yes, I love that. We have the sense that the mature are those who are hyper-disciplined or are really good at spiritual disciplines. We lose the sense that God invites us to come to him as children, to make mistakes.

Sometimes we get too intense when we put ourselves in a hurry—I’ve got to earn status! I’ve got to earn ability! I’ve got to earn the capacities! It was Dallas Willard who said, “Grace is not opposed to effort; it’s opposed to earning.” When I just put effort in, I’m not hurting anything or violating grace. I’m just enabling the Spirit’s grace to do its work in my life as I participate with the life of Christ in the world. It’s his work in me, and I get to practice, and I also get to fail. Then he’ll pick me up like a child and say, “I’m really glad you tried it. Let’s try it again.”

Q: We talked about this a little at the beginning, but what are the specific opportunities for spiritual formation that are exposed in a time of crisis?

BW: I’d like to speak autobiographically, if that’s okay. I mentioned earlier how I can be addicted to success and how I’m not gentle and kind toward myself. I rely on the validation of other people who deem me as a success. In this pandemic, there’s very little validation and affirmation that can come to us as we stare at screens all the time. God’s invitation to me, his loving, gentle kindness to me, is to say, “Brian, you’re more than what you produce. You’re more than what other people think of you. You are my son.” It’s also the opportunity to slow down and pay attention to the long work God’s been doing in all of our lives up to this point.

I rely on the validation of other people who deem me as a success. In this pandemic, there's very little validation and affirmation...

TH: I think I want to speak personally as well. In the midst of this, I find myself being drawn to or invited to think really big thoughts about God… desiring and meditating on a God who somehow makes sense of all this. You’ve got to have a really big God to make sense of these unspeakably enormous problems the world is facing. Like, what does it mean that God is absolute in dominion, that his purity is infinite? What does it mean to be self-sufficient? I find myself just wanting to marinate in the goodness and the sufficiency of God. What does it mean that all this “badness” happens under the careful superintending wisdom and love of a completely competent God?

In the midst of this, I find myself being drawn to or invited to think really big thoughts about God.

I find that if I’m going to stand in this situation in any sort of redemptive way— where my life is experienced by others as for their good—I need to cultivate this connection to God and his infinite wisdom. He can’t make mistakes. He’s not deceived. From his infinite goodness, he can’t do anything except what is eternally just and right and kind. How do we hold that in our heads simultaneously with the brokenness all around us?

Want to delve deeper into spiritual formation in a time of crisis? Listen to our Practices of Formation for the Missional Leader podcast with the Rev. Canon Dr. Kris McDaniel and the Rev. Dr. JR Rozko. 

Executive director of the Fuller Center for Spiritual and Missional Formation since 2015, Brian Wallace holds a doctorate in missiology from Fuller and is a clergy member of the Anglican Church of North America. He spent 11 years as a pastor in Austin, Texas, and 19 years with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, largely as regional director for Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. Fuller Formation Groups were born out of Brian’s extensive doctoral work and years of church and ministry leadership in addition to Fuller’s Vocation and Formation Department. Brian has been married to his wife, Lisa, for 33 years with three adult sons. Brian is an avid Red Sox fan, coffee drinker, and music lover.