Strong leaders are built from the inside out
Lance Witt will be the keynote speaker at the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention’s annual Equip Conference set for August 13 at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. Witt is the founder of REPLENISH ministries and author of “Replenish,” “High Impact Teams,” and, most recently, “Your ONE Life: Own it, Live it, Love it.” He recently spoke with the Texan about the importance of soul care, self-awareness, and understanding identity as it pertains to pastors and church leaders.
When it comes to leadership, so much has been written and taught about how to lead in an external sense (structures and strategies, processes and procedures). Yet the heart of your ministry has focused much more on the internal parts of leadership like “being” and spiritual health. What were you seeing in the Christian landscape that led you to make that the focus of your ministry?
Lance Witt: The first thing I was seeing was a lack of health in my own soul. I was coming out of seven years as an executive and teaching pastor at Saddleback Church. I was there when Rick [Warren, Saddleback’s pastor] wrote “Purpose Driven Life,” so that was a huge game-changer for him, for our church, and for our staff. It was a season of amazing ministry influence, but also a season with a lot of challenges because the church was exploding in growth, everybody was contacting the church, Rick sort of became this global celebrity. And so the bottom line is, I just really wasn’t leading myself very well. I just began to see, as hard as I was working and trying to do good things and serve the Lord on the inside, I was pretty empty.
I think my story is not unusual, especially for a lot of people who are either pastors or who serve as volunteers in leadership. We’re sort of taught like—we’re very Word-centered, we’re very evangelistic, let’s go win the world for Jesus—but in the process, we haven’t really been taught much about caring for our own souls. What I began to discover is that even though theologically I would’ve known I had a soul and that my soul was headed for heaven and had been redeemed by the cross, what I didn’t really live with was the experiential reality that my soul needed attention on a daily basis and that I had to care for and nurture my soul and the being side of my life.
That doesn’t minimize the importance of doing, but I think being comes first. And by the way, I think this is really consistent with what Jesus taught, that the Christian life is inside to outside. He says it starts with the root and then it moves toward fruit, it goes from the invisible to the visible. I think that’s why Solomon said in Proverbs 4 that, above everything else, guard your heart, your inner life, because everything you do flows from that.
Equip is an event designed specifically to train leaders in the local church. Many of those leaders are lay leaders who have full-time jobs, busy families, and they’re working through the stresses and struggles of everyday life. What are some practical ways lay leaders in 2022 can find a balance between being present with their families and active in their churches without running themselves into the ground?
LW: I think part of this is just embracing that there is a dual component to this thing. There is paying attention to my inner life, my soul, my relationships, but then also realizing that the reason God left me on earth … was that He has an assignment for me and He has given me gifts and called me into the body. He’s wired us in such a way that at the end of the day, we can never be fulfilled when we’re just consumers taking care of ourselves. Now, I really do believe that self care is not selfish—it’s good stewardship. But we can become self-absorbed, and it just becomes all about us and our comfort and meeting our needs and taking care of what we want. God just didn’t wire us that way. He wired us so that our great fulfillment comes in part when we’re actually serving.
One of the things I’m going to talk about in my main session comes out of the book I just released last year called “Your ONE Life.” I think if people are going to live meaningful lives in 2022 as lay people who have full-time jobs, families to take care of, and serve in the local church, it starts with first getting really clear about your purpose in life, what is your true north, and what is it that, at the end of the day, you truly value? The whole book is based on the idea of how do we really steward well the one and only life we’ve ever been given? A key verse I use is Psalm 90:12, which says, “Teach us to number our days that we may grow a heart of wisdom.” We need to live with this sense of [understanding] that we get one shot at this life. We need to be really clear about our purpose. We need to be crystal clear about our values. And then I think this is where it gets really practical, but I need to align my priorities and align my week around the things that I say are most important to me, because what I’ve discovered is that my life and my calendar sort of become like my garage. If I just leave it alone, it ends up really cluttered.
I think getting clear about what’s really important and then aligning my life around that is what really leads to the beauty of a life that is paying attention to my personal life, but also is engaged in serving. I will talk in my main session about grabbing your life by the throat—like, you really have to take responsibility for your life and where you’re going to commit to.
You plan on addressing a couple of other important topics at Equip: rhythms and relationships. Can you just share a glimpse about what God has put on your heart about those two topics?
LW: We live in a world where everybody is on 24/7, where we can stay plugged in all the time and have our smartphones attached to our hip. I think for me to really live a great life and be an effective servant, I need to have a rhythm of life that works hard and produces, but one that also has built into it a time for rest and replenishment. Go back to the very beginning of creation, where God’s model for us is this rhythm of produce, create, work, and then pause and rest. I need that rhythm because God made everything in the universe with this sense of rhythm. Nothing was made to give out all of the time. I love in Leviticus when God is talking about sabbath and He says, “Every seven years, I want you to give the physical dirt a Sabbath because nothing was made to give out all the time.”
So I just think we need a more developed theology of rest. We need to learn how to work hard, and then also unplug hard. I think that if we could learn to have healthy rhythms, we could actually do ministry from a place where we are filled up, in love with Jesus and in love with people. When it comes to relationships—and this will be more in my breakout session—I think the key to really effective leadership is that we need to be relational leaders. God has called us to shepherd sheep, to love on them. We can never forget that God called us to love people. I just want to challenge people to really shepherd and love the people that they are with in a very profound way. I think sometimes we are very transactional in our approach [with volunteers in the church] and it ends up feeling very utilitarian. I want my volunteers to feel that what I care about is what I want for them, not just what I want from them.
Let’s say someone pulls you aside at Equip and says, “Hey, I’m a follower of Christ, but I know my internal life is a mess. What should I do?” There’s no quick and easy answer to that question, but what are a few practical, immediate steps that people can take to get their life headed in a better direction?
LW: I think one would be just acknowledging that you actually have an inner life and that maybe it’s not in the healthiest place right now. I always say that whatever is going on inside of me internally is always going to leak out externally. So just the fact that you are acknowledging that is a huge gift, but I would also say, make yourself begin to go on journey—and it’s going to take a while—to raise your level of self-awareness. I love this quote: “Self-awareness is your best defense against self-defeat.” I think if you can become a more self-aware leader and understand how your family of origin has impacted you, how people’s voices over you in the past have created a narrative in your head that you tend to believe … you will begin to better understand your identity in Christ.