A Work of Heart: Understanding How God Shapes Spiritual Leaders

By Reggie McNeal
Published by Jossey-Bass, c.2000

    The following is the introduction from McNeal's latest book. Watch for a review on these pages when I have completed the book. A Work of Heart

    Heart-shaping is the term used throughout this volume for what some would call spiritual formation. The term spiritual formation may be confusing and without clear meaning to many. It conjures up mystical processes and practices that defy investigation or categorization. To overcome this confusion, this book employs a warmer and more intuitively understood phrase.

    Heart-shaping involves both divine and human activity. God does not unilaterally mold and sculpt passive human beings who exercise no role in scripting their life development. Humans can and do make choices as part of the expression of the image of God given to them. God will not override the power to choose, which he grants to humans. On the other hand, God is no passive observer. The Christian doctrine of providence maintains that God lovingly superintends every part of our lives. Our choosings never render us helpless or beyond divine intervention.

    A marvelous and mysterious interface of divine and human choices conspires and contends in designing a life and in shaping the heart that lies at the center of it. This divine and human interplay is what this hook is about. These pages are an investigation of the heart-shaping process, an attempt to understand the crucible that shapes a leader's life.

    The motif of a story or drama lends itself to this investigation. A great story is not just one story but a set of stories. The subplots all contribute particular element to the development of the major story line. None of the mini-stories by themselves yields the whole plot, yet taken together they form the drama.

    Leaders' lives are great drama. They have a plot that can be separated into several story lines. These subplots reflect different arenas of the leader's life in which God is at work.

    We can isolate these dramatic elements for exploration. However, heartshaping does not progress linearly. Its dynamic reflects more of a layering process, similar to the process used in music studios in recording various sound tracks that are then mixed together to create a single piece. The sub-stories within the leader's life are going on simultaneously and are interfering with one another. Sometimes one is pushed more to the foreground of attention, but no chapter in the leader's life story stands on its own.

    Basic heart-shaping occurs in six significant arenas. These divine-human interchanges provide the six major subplots of the leader's heart-shaping process. The development and convergence of these story lines script the leader's life message. These six subplots are culture, call, community, communion, conflict, and the commonplace.

    Culture. Culture is the first major player in the leader's heart development. It creates the backdrop for all the rest of the story lines. In this book's investigation, culture will be broadly defined to include all the environmental influences that shape the leader's life and ministry context. These include the historical period, political situation, societal mores, and traditions. dl of these create the cultural milieu in which the leader operates. Culture not neutral; it contains both positive and negative forces. Nor does it serve merely as a background. Culture creates a story line in itself, for the leader's heart cannot be explained apart from its cultural influences.

    Call. Every leader will admit to having some sense of destiny, whether great or small. In spiritual leaders, we can refer to this as the awareness of a call. The call is the leader's personal conviction of having received some life assignment or mission that must be completed. The call orders the leader's efforts, affecting decisions in every area of life. How the leader comes to an understanding of the life mission and how to pursue it provides a significant subplot for the leader's life drama.

    Community. Leaders do not develop in isolation. They emerge within a community that plays a vital role in shaping them. Actually, we should speak of multiple communities in the leader's development. The family of origin, or initial life community, provides a beginning place for understanding this subplot in the leader's story. However, other key communities come into play. These may include the leader's friendships and faith-ministry communities.


    Communion. This aspect of heart-shaping reflects the leader's conscious cultivation of a relationship with God. Spiritual leaders deal in spiritual currency. The value of this currency depends directly on the strength of the leader's deposits into the relationship bank with the Almighty. The communion subplot opens the door to the intimate interaction between the leader and the Leader.

    Conflict. One could naively suspect that because spiritual leaders focus on healing, grace, peacemaking, restoration, forgiveness, and reconciliation, they escape from a lot of conflict. Just the opposite is true. The nature of the work places the spiritual leader in a combative position against destructive powers, the dark side of spiritual forces. Spiritual leaders find themselves thrown into the thick of the fray. These conflicts, whether personal, interrelational, demonic, or organizational, are not tangential developments. Rather, they are central heart-shaping events and episodes.


    The commonplace. A lot of heart-shaping activity goes on in the everyday, run-of-the-mill, when-nobody's-looking activity of the leader. The defining moments in leaders' lives rarely offer a study in discontinuity. Usually leaders come to believe that all of life served to prepare them for that crystallizing event. The ordinary and routine serve to shape the leader's character. How the leader responds to everyday challenges and opportunities reflects a basic predisposition toward God's work in the leader's life.

    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. They do not have a clear picture of the heart-shaping subplots that in the long run create their life and leadership legacy. They sometimes see individual or significant events as important, but they often fail to connect the dots of their life experience. As a result, they miss the learnings that such understanding yields.

    Sometimes we can see the process of spiritual development in others more easily than we can perceive it in our own hearts. Once we learn to see God at work in others, we can then learn to look for these patterns in our own lives. For this reason, Part One of this volume investigates the heart-shaping dramas of four major biblical leaders, two from the Old Testament and two from the New Testament. The development of Moses, David, Paul, and Jesus provides us some clues as to how God works in every leader's heart in every era.

    Studying these well-known leaders will give us a common language and a storyboard to work from. The six sub-plots emerge as we rehearse the stories of these heroes of the faith. A few implications for contemporary spiritual leaders are mentioned, but for the most part, the treatment focuses on the dramas of the biblical characters themselves.

    Part Two moves into the categorical investigation of the six subplots of the leader's heart-shaping drama. Having discussed these dynamics at work in Moses, David, Paul, and Jesus, Part Two explores these same heart-shaping dimensions in today's leaders. Some specific applications and suggestions offer readers a chance to identify these themes in their own lives and leadership experience.

    This investigation pursues one additional agenda, prompted by pondering the question of why God creates leaders anyway. With all of the options available to him, why has he chosen to work through leaders in spiritual enterprises? The answer may at first seem too simple, but it is the best answer I can offer: God creates leaders in order to share his heart with his people. This observation can be verified when we consider what we have come to know of God through the lives of our biblical heroes. This means that the spiritual formation in the life of the leader is not just a private matter. God does not work in the leader's life in a vacuum, apart from the leader's role and life context. God's objectives may (and often do) extend beyond the leader's own life and lifetime. Part of the exploration of the heart-shaping drama considers its impact on the leader's constellation of followers.

    As you read, please keep two questions in mind: What is going on (or has gone on) in each subplot of your own life that affects your current heart condition? and What is being revealed about God's heart through you in each of the six key story lines of your life? This volume does not aim to help you figure out some new methodological approach to your leadership, nor is it designed to remediate flaws or deficiencies. The goal is to get you acquainted with the most important information you will need as a leader-self-understanding. This is a different issue than self-preoccupation. Self-preoccupation shows up in leaders who use others in order to achieve their own ambitions.

    Selfunderstanding begins and ends with God. This takes time and reflection. However, I am convinced that the most effective leaders are those who take time to ponder what God is up to in their own lives. Those who understand their own hearts will be better prepared to lead amid the growing discontinuities at the dawn of the third Christian millennium.

    A few things about the book's format bear mentioning. First, real names in illustrations are never used. Many illustrations are also altered to prohibit easy identification. The reason for this (besides protecting the privacy of individuals) is that my experience teaches me that spiritual leaders categorize others' experiences too quickly, particularly if they know the person or situation. This would get in the way of the intent of this volume, which is designed to coach an inward journey, not to draw comparisons with others.

    The reader will also notice a lack of references. In the treatment of biblical leaders, I have not surveyed the literature on these men. I have attempted to stay with the biblical material to demonstrate some connections that readers, working with the same sources, can build on in their own development. Many fine books have been written on the various themes covered here. Again, my intent is to reflect on these themes, not to provide a critical commentary on the subjects. I avoid excessive psychological terms and analysis. My goal is to prompt reflection, not to provide therapy, though I do hope the book has therapeutic value for the leader's soul.

    Leadership emphases tend to cycle. Perhaps twenty to thirty years from now, the great need will again be "how to _______." Then someone, maybe me, will write about the limitations of leadership that is too introspective and inward focused. But this heart-shaping emphasis does not currently seem to be in oversupply.

    I hope that reading this book will leave you with two major impressions. First, I hope that you marvel at the mystery of God's designs on your life. The writing effort will have been worth it if you become more attuned to the frequency of God's work in you. Second, I hope that your sense of your own leadership task will change. You may discover that God's greatest adventure for you involves far more than making you a great leader. He wants to make you a great person. You are, after all, a work of heart.

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• © 1999-2002 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated on July 17, 2002