The Role of the Spirit in Church Leadership

What does it take to be an effective leader in God’s church: a particular skill set? Personal charisma? Seminary training? Mastery of the Bible? A heart for the Kingdom?

The Story of Peter

Simon Peter was called by Jesus, trained by him, an eyewitness to Jesus’ ministry and miracles, a man who loved Jesus dearly. Yet he wasn’t much of a leader according to the Gospel accounts. He didn’t understand the parables. He squabbled with the other disciples. He was proud, petty, and petulant. He often lacked faith. During the closing days of Jesus’ ministry (after three years in Jesus’ presence!), Peter rebuked Jesus, then abandoned him, then denied him. As the Gospel of John closes, Peter is deeply discouraged and deeply doubtful that he will play a significant role in whatever the future holds.

Only days later (as the Acts of the Apostles takes up the story), Peter is the leading voice in the church and among the Apostles. He is the one who stands before the Pentecost crowds and proclaims the gospel. It is Peter who heals a lame man, preaches to the gathered witnesses, and then defends his actions before the Sanhedrin with such boldness and eloquence that members of the Council are “astonished.” He is walking around Jerusalem dripping with so much spiritual power that even the touch of his shadow brings healing (Ac 5:15). It is Peter who ushers the first Gentiles into the Kingdom and Peter who not only defends the legitimacy of Gentile believers but turns their acceptance into church policy.

What happened? How did the small man we meet in the pages of the Gospels become the giant of Acts?

Simple. Peter received the Holy Spirit. And it was this encounter with the Holy Spirit that transformed Simon (the vexing and doubting disciple) into Peter (the undisputed leader of God’s first church).

Filled with the Spirit

Peter was present in the Upper Room when Jesus breathed on his disciples and told them, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (Jn 20:22). He was there when Jesus promised they would soon be baptized with the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5). The falling of the Spirit was the immediate context for Peter’s sermon on Pentecost—a sermon that began and ended with a celebration of the Spirit. And—in a particularly telling passage (Acts 4:8), as if the writer is trying to explain what happened to simple Simon—Peter is described as being “filled with the Holy Spirit.”

It is this idea (being “filled with the Spirit”) that marks a man in Scripture as an effective leader of God’s people. Moses, Joshua, the Judges, King David, the prophets: all these leaders were connected intimately with the Spirit. John the Baptist was filled with the Spirit “from birth.” The believers at Pentecost (including Peter) were “filled.” When the church was asked to choose leaders to address the problem of the Grecian widows (Acts 6), they were directed to select “men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit.” Stephen, Barnabas, Paul—and, of course, Peter—were all “filled with the Holy Spirit.”

According to the Bible, the bottom-line of effective church leadership is not training or skills or personal leadership qualities. It has little to do with role or propensity or ability. The bottom-line is this and this alone: Effective church leadership results when leaders have an intimate relationship with the Holy Spirit. When that is present, the Spirit can use almost anyone, equipping them and creating opportunities for successful leadership. When it is not, ministry and leadership will necessarily prove ordinary and, ultimately, illegitimate.

Leading with the Spirit

We’ve expended a great deal of ink and paper arguing over what “filled with the Spirit” means. We’ve wrangled over whether this includes miraculous powers and speaking in tongues. We’ve held the subject at arm’s length because the whole idea of the supernatural in today’s church—an uncontrollable and mysterious spiritual power running amok in our midst—frightens us more than the notion of a church devoid of Spirit. We demand to know “what this means” before we can decide “whether we want it”!

As a leader in God’s Kingdom, concerned to lead well and productively, I am convinced our approach has been flawed. The truth of the matter is that—when it comes to church leadership and the work of the Spirit—“whether we want it” is not the issue. We can’t do without it. We cannot lead effectively and legitimately in the absence of the filling of the Spirit. Whatever that means, whatever form it takes, only the Spirit within us can turn our “Simons” into “Peters.” The real question for spiritual leaders is not “whether we want” this Spirit but “how can we open our lives” to his pervasive presence … how do we constantly invite his filling. I, for one, am eager to “receive the Holy Spirit” and leave the details—what it all means, how it all works, where all it will lead—to God. I am eager because I’m convinced there is no productive or valid spiritual leadership without him filling my life.

Mentoring with the Spirit

This entire issue becomes vitally important to those of us who are interested in mentoring ministers. I am thankful that older, wiser, more experienced ministers have the desire to pour themselves into younger church leaders: their hard-won lessons; their practical wisdom; their problem-solving abilities. But I’m convinced we mentors have something better yet to offer. Unless we are pouring God’s Spirit into those we serve, rooting their leadership in an intimate relationship with the Paraclete, guiding and encouraging and modeling a reliance on the Spirit’s equipping/maturing/transforming work, we will ultimately fail to build the kind of leaders who can turn a world upside down.

Oh, I can build better preachers (“You need more illustrations”) or better managers (“Read this book”) or better pastors (“Visit the visitors!”). But I’ll never take a Simon and create a Peter. Someone bigger than I is required to accomplish that great and needed task. As mentors, our first and ultimate goal must be to unleash that “someone bigger” into the lives of those we touch. If I fail to do that, the best I can hope from my mentoring work is the creation of ministers who never grow larger than me.


[My recent book—A Spirit for the Rest of Us—explores how we can experience a more vibrant relationship with the Holy Spirit without jumping off a charismatic cliff. The clue is found in the Final Discourse, where Jesus speaks repeatedly and profoundly about the coming Spirit and how he will work in the lives of believers. In the Paraclete Passages, Jesus promises a Spirit who will live in disciples forever and bring companionship, competence, courage, conviction, and change. Published by Leafwood Publishers,]

© 2012 by Tim Woodroof. Reproduction of this material requires permission from the author.